As happens to – I think – every music lover during one era or another, while I was living through the first years of the 1980s, I didn’t have much use for the music of the times. That’s not news to those who’ve been reading this blog for a while; I’ve written before about how I felt about the music of the 1980s at the time that decade was unspooling.
What interests me now, though, is how I’ve come to appreciate more of that music these days than I ever thought I would. I grant that I’m still not accustomed to tunes from those years showing up in the playlists of the Twin Cities oldies station I listen to, but that’s a simple matter of disbelief at the march of time; it’s not an aesthetic comment on the music that’s new to that playlist.
There’s no doubt, though, that I quit listening regularly to pop music during several stretches of the 1980s, and that was especially true during the first few years of that decade. As I more and more disliked what I heard when I listened to Top 40 and other popular radio formats, my radio at home was frequently tuned to a jazz station, and I dabbled in country music at the time, too. I also listened to a lot of classical music, and I dug into the Big Band music of my parents’ youth. None of those satisfied me in the end, and I was a musical nomad for a while.
The funny thing is, I look at the records that were hits in the 1980s – either the lists of No. 1 songs week by week or the list of the biggest hits of the decade – and they don’t seem so awful now. Some of them, in fact, seem pretty palatable. There’s still a lot of piffle, but when wasn’t there piffle? The Sixties and Seventies each had their shares of bad singles rising to the top, and some of those bad singles – “bad” in the aesthetic sense – are among the records I still enjoy from those formative years of mine. (“Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” is a prime example: It’s at the same time an awful song and a great record if you were a listener then; but it’s not necessarily what I would want the aliens from Altair to hear first as they approached our blue planet. What would my choice be? I have no idea this morning.)
One thing is certain: The music I dissed between twenty and thirty years ago hasn’t changed. So if I like more of that music today than I did then, the change must have come from me. And, having thought about this at least a little, I think my reaction to the tunes of the time was more than anything else a reaction to the times. Politically, culturally, a lot of things changed in the years just before and just after 1980, with the changes adding up to one of those shifts in the zeitgeist that take place in our culture every twenty or thirty years or so.
And since one of the things that pop culture does well is to reflect that zeitgeist back to us through the mass media (though they become less mass year by year, a topic we might explore here another day), the music I was listening to and finding wanting was showing me – imperfectly, to be sure – the larger culture surrounding pop culture. I didn’t like what I saw, and in the first instance of old-fogyism that I can recall in my life – certainly not my last – I gave a “hrmmph” and turned my back on almost all pop music to find a more comforting current form of musical sustenance. I never did find it, which isn’t a surprise, as what I was looking for was 1970 or 1975 or something very much like that. And those years and their times were gone.
I think this is not a unique tale. Though the details – and the specific times – may differ, I think the first adult instance of noticing the world changing greatly around us is a universal experience. Sometimes we swim as hard as we can against the current, and sometimes we float and bob along. Some of us, I suppose, have boats and ride through the changes without much effort at all, and some very few of us – to stretch the metaphor to its elastic capacity – sit on the shore and watch the river flow and thus never move away from, oh, 1972 or whenever.
That last reaction – inaction, if you will – was never an option. Even though I felt more comfortable with those earlier times, and as much as I love memoir and memory, I still – as a reporter, as a writer, as a reader, as a person – had to be in the present. So I eventually made my peace with the fact that the times had shifted. Some of that peace was easier found when I went to graduate school; a university environment encourages exploration and acceptance of new ideas, and I found that to be true in the lesser matters of pop culture as well as the larger matters of social policy and all the other things that make the world run.
And being drawn back to pop culture and pop music — I still didn’t like everything I heard, but I was at least listening again – brought me to one of the best records included in this long project of the Ultimate Jukebox. I imagine that if I took the agonizing time to rank all 228 songs in the UJ – and I won’t do that; I have better things to invest my hours in – this record by the Cars from the late summer and early autumn of 1984 would fall securely in my Top Twenty, if not higher.
“Drive” was written and performed by the late Benjamin Orr of the Cars, and it spent the last two weeks of September and the first week of October 1984 at No. 3. It was also No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart for three weeks.
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 36
“Down in the Alley” by Elvis Presley from Spinout 
“Back in the U.S.S.R.” by the Beatles from The Beatles 
“Fishin’ Blues” by Taj Mahal from De Ole Folks at Home 
“Eight Miles High” by Leo Kottke from Mudlark 
“Lady Marmalade” by LaBelle, Epic 50048 
“Drive” by the Cars from Heartbeat City 
The various movie soundtracks that Elvis Presley found himself entangled in during the 1960s weren’t often well-received when they came out, and they’re not often highly regarded today. Some Elvis fanatics – and I am not one of those – might find more in those releases than others, but generally, there aren’t many great Presley performances among those albums. There are, however, a couple of tracks from the soundtrack to Spinout that grab my ears. The first – and I’ve gone back and forth over the years on its value – is his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.” I’ve finally settled on the view that it’s a good performance. But as good as the Dylan cover is, Presley’s take on “Down In The Alley” is the best track on the Spinout album. The tune was originally written and recorded by the Clovers in the mid-1950s, and I assume the record made some dent in the R&B chart, but I don’t know for certain. (I’m also uncertain about the year the Clovers’ version was released; I’ve seen both 1956 and 1957 at various sources.) The only release from Spinout that I can find on the Billboard Hot 100 is the title tune to the movie, which peaked at No. 40 in November of 1966, but from where I listen, “Down In The Alley” should have been a hit.
When listing my favorite singles for a post a couple of years ago – and I think all but one of those I listed have found their way into this project; a Rolling Stones track that I listed in that post as an honorable mention did not make the cut – I said that if the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” had ever been released as a single, there would be no doubt about my favorite single of all time. I’m not sure that’s honestly the case – it would be tough to knock “Cherish” out of the top spot – but “Back in the U.S.S.R.” would be in the top five, I think. (The other three? “We” by Shawn Phillips, “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers and “Long, Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt.) And hearing the song live at a Paul McCartney concert in 2002 remains one of the highlights of my musical life. (As for the video I’ve linked to, it’s labeled as a 1970s promo video. I have my doubts about that; for what it matters, a lot of the visuals seem to have been shot in the Netherlands. The other interesting thing about the video is that the audio is a different mix than is on the album, with a slightly different introduction, for one. And the song ends on its own. What I mean is that the sound of the airplane takes the record to its fade out without the opening guitar part to “Dear Prudence” overlapping. I’d never heard that before. Anyone out there know anything about any of it?)
I tend to forget that I saw Taj Mahal in concert once. He performed a Sunday afternoon show in St. Cloud’s new municipal arena in the spring of 1972, I think. (It might have been a year later.) The place was crowded, hot and uncomfortable. I knew very little of the man’s music at the time; in fact, I think “Fishin’ Blues” was the only song I recognized all afternoon. I know a bit more about the man and his music now, having collected several of his LPs and CDs. But he remains an enigma to me, maybe because he moves from place to place musically, always exploring and never settling down to one genre although All-Music Guide notes that “while he dabbled in many different genres, he never strayed too far from his laid-back country blues foundation.” As much as I’ve dug into the man’s work, I may need to dig more. Beyond that, one thing comes to mind: “Fishin’ Blues” was written by early 20th century songster Henry Thomas (a fact that Taj Mahal has always acknowledged; the writing credits on De Ole Folks At Home list Thomas and a J. Williams, whose identity is a mystery to me). Thus, “Fishin’ Blues” is the second song in the Ultimate Jukebox that came at least partly from Thomas’ pen. As I mentioned a while back, the flute riff that opens Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country” is pretty much the same as the quills riff that opened Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues.”
Leo Kottke once likened his voice to the sound of “geese farts on a muggy day.” Never having heard the latter, I can only guess that he was wrong, as I like Kottke’s voice. I especially like it on his cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” on his Mudlark album. Along with his brilliant guitar work, Kottke’s vocal brings something to the surreal song that the Byrds’ swirling psychedelic single doesn’t deliver. On the other hand, my preference for Kottke’s version simply might stem from the fact that when my sister brought Mudlark home, it was probably the first time I’d ever heard the song. And I still prefer the cover to the admittedly brilliant original.
So what do we get from LaBelle’s No 1 hit? Beyond, that is, a lesson in French that college boys of all generations since 1975 have hoped to be able to put to use? We get a sly and funky piece of R&B that sounds as good today as it did thirty-five years ago when it spent a week at No. 1 on both the Top 40 and the R&B charts. “Lady Marmalade” still slinks, bumps, grinds and rocks.