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A Song From Your Preteen Years

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 12: A Song From Your Preteen Years

As much as it pains some of my friends to admit this, country music is woven deeply into the DNA of rock and roll — when rock first emerged as a distinct genre in the early 1950s, it was essentially a fusion of rhythm and blues with country, along with a sprinkling of gospel — and that country gene has often expressed itself in the body of rock over the years. One such moment was the so-called “crossover” phenomenon of the early ’80s, when a number of country artists were regularly posting hits on the pop charts. The late Kenny Rogers was the king of the crossover period, but you can make a good case that Juice Newton (real name Judy) was the queen, at least for the brief two-year moment from 1981-82, during which she scored seven top-40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The video for the first of these hits, her cover of a 1968 tune called “Angel of the Morning,” was the first country-music clip to be played on MTV, on the very first day that the music network launched. (Juice herself was the third female solo artist to be played on MTV behind Pat Benatar and Carly Simon.)

Her next pop hit — and her biggest — was “Queen of Hearts,” released in June of 1981. I was eleven years old that summer. I’d be twelve by the time “Queen of Hearts” reached Billboard’s number-two spot in September, and I loved this song almost as much as “Jessie’s Girl,” which was out around the same time. Hearing it these days instantly conjures memories of riding my red Schwinn with the banana seat on a hot summer afternoon, the sky impossibly high overhead and shining like polished aluminum, and a little black AM/FM transistor radio dangling from the handlebars, expanding my universe one awesome tune at a time as I pedaled my way past the tired old brick buildings and hay fields that were my home town. All of those things, from the Schwinn to the fields, are gone now. But “Queen of Hearts” is still a cool song.

Kind of a silly video, though.

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A Song You Never Get Tired Of

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 11: A Song You Never Get Tired Of

Let’s see if I can recapture the thread on this little exercise, shall we? A song I never get tired of… let’s see…

I’ll bet you thought I was going to post something by Rick Springfield, didn’t you? Well, believe it or not, even I need the occasional break from “Jessie’s Girl.” But there is a tune I don’t ever grow weary of. It’s from the infancy of rock and roll and it radiates such a youthful exuberance that it always lifts me up when I hear it. It’s just so… joyful… from the irresistible drum beat to the cool guitar breakdown in the middle to the goofy, playful way the lyrics are enunciated. I’m speaking, of course, of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” which was a number-three hit on the Billboard Hot 100 way back in 1957. It was Buddy’s second hit after “That’ll Be the Day,” and unlike so much else from the early rock era, I think it sounds as timeless today as it did when it was released. My mom has a scratchy 45 of it that I discovered when I first started to take an interest in music around the age of 12 or so; I put a few hundred more spins on that old platter before I acquired my first Buddy cassette. It’s also one of a small handful of songs I know of that got a sequel, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” a demo Buddy recorded two months before his untimely death in February 1959. It was released posthumously.

Obviously, this all took place long before the era of music videos, so I had intended to simply post the song. But as I was poking around, I came across this clip, which I believe comes from Buddy’s appearance with his band The Crickets on The Ed Sullivan Show in December of 1957. The audio might not be the original; it’s been heavily processed if it is. But take a look and enjoy the sound. Buddy is one of my favorites, and one of my favorite “What ifs?” I truly think that if his life hadn’t been cut so short, he would be revered today as one of the true innovators, right up there with the Beatles.

Incidentally, the real-life Peggy Sue was not Buddy’s girlfriend, as is commonly believed. Peggy Sue Gerron was in fact the girlfriend (and later wife) of Jerry Allison, the drummer for the Crickets and cowriter of this song.

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A Song That Makes You Sad

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 10: A Song That Makes You Sad

“The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” has quite a pedigree: It was written by Shel Silverstein, the poet known for the children’s books The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, and first recorded in 1974 by Dr Hook and the Medicine Show, who also cut popular songs like “The Cover of the ‘Rolling Stone'” and “Sexy Eyes.” But it’s the 1979 version by Marianne Faithfull — an icon of the 1960s British Invasion and a former girlfriend of Mick Jagger — that people are most likely to have heard.

I first encountered the song in the movie Thelma and Louise, where it’s used to score one of the most haunting scenes in the film. Deep into their fugitive run, the titular heroines are driving through Utah’s Monument Valley at night, with giant rock formations (unnaturally flood-lighted, but they look cool, so who cares) gliding silently past their open convertible. Thelma dozes off, leaving Louise alone with her thoughts and a bottle of Wild Turkey. The eerie throbbing keyboards and melancholy lyrics underscore the poignancy of their predicament and the growing possibility that they’re not going to come out of it alive.

I loved the song in the context of the movie. I’ve had night-time drives like that myself, and the scene is very visceral for me. Watching it, I can feel the crisp breeze flowing through the car and tugging at hair and sleeves, smell the exhaust — if Louise’s old T-Bird is anything like my Galaxie, it burns oil — and I can see the millions of stars glowing in the black velvet sky above. It’s one of those cinematic moments that really speaks to me… in no small part because the director chose that particular song.

I loved the song more when I bought the soundtrack album and finally heard it all the way through. I remember thinking it was a magnificent piece of storytelling, which, as a wannabe storyteller myself, was hugely important to me at the time. And those synths and Marianne Faithfull’s unusual voice just sounded cool.

But as the years have passed and I’ve crept into middle age myself, it’s become more and more difficult for me to listen to “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” The story of a woman facing the reality that her youthful dreams are never going to be fulfilled and all she has to fill her days are mundane chores…. well, it comes a little too close to the bone for me.

Don’t misunderstand, I still think it’s a great song. It’s just one that depresses the shit out of me.

Incidentally, Marianne Faithfull is a genuine rock-and-roll survivor who struggled with heroin addiction in the ’60s — the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is said to have been inspired by her — and homelessness and anorexia in the ’70s. And just in the past couple of months, she survived being hospitalized for COVID-19. Helluva lady.

[Edit: I learned earlier today that an old college friend died this morning. I’ll be writing more about that. But for now… I’d like to dedicate this to Jaren. He never got to ride through Paris in a sports car either. ]

 

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A Song That Makes You Happy

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 9: A Song That Makes You Happy

The big booming bass drum at the start followed by an infectious rhythm, Susanna Hoffs’ little-girl growl, and mildly suggestive lyrics that recall the dizzying early days of a new romance… “In Your Room” by the Bangles is sexy, and sexy makes me happy.

The song comes from their album Everything; released in the fall of 1988, it was a top-5 hit in the US. It would be eclipsed somewhat by a later (and bigger) hit from the same album, “Eternal Flame,” but this is the one that puts a smile on face.

Yeah… I dig the Bangles.

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A Song About Drugs or Alcohol

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 8: A Song About Drugs or Alcohol

The English band Chumbawumba first formed in 1982, but didn’t achieve mainstream recognition until the 1997 release of “Tubthumping,” which would become their biggest hit. Here in the US, it spent a total of 31 weeks in the Billboard Top 100, two of which were spent at slot number 6, the song’s highest point of success. All through the fall of that year, it was well-nigh inescapable.

Even so, it’s admittedly kind of a stupid song. There’s only a single verse and the chorus, repeated over and over. You can’t say it’s making any deep observations about the human condition. But it is weirdly evocative in its stripped-down simplicity. It so wonderfully captures a time and a place: a sweaty crowded pub, or in my case, since I didn’t get out to pubs all that often, house parties filled with horny twentysomethings trying to relax and to connect, the hormonal imperative to meet somebody and be with somebody just strong enough to overcome the insecurity, perhaps with a little help from the Jello shots. I hear this song and I think of candles flickering down deep into canyons of melted wax as the clock spins on into the wee hours and the living room grows quieter and the conversation gets weirder, the ashtrays overflowing and all the sticky-sweet mixer is gone so you’re just drinking the straight stuff now, and your free hand is around the shoulder of someone you want to take home, and someone is expounding on a book they read in college, so long ago, and someone else is staring sadly at the ember glowing at the end of their cigarette. I was 28 in the fall of 1997. Emotionally, I was probably closer to 20 than to 30, but I thought myself such a sophisticate, or at least I told myself I was. I fancied myself a Byronic hero, beaten up by the world, and yet somehow standing upright in the gale. “Tubthumping” evokes that, too… it’s not only a drinking song, it’s optimistic and encouraging, with its assertion that you’re going to get up again no matter what life throws at you.

And it’s catchy as hell.

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A Song That Makes You Want to Dance

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 6: A Song That Makes You Want to Dance

Yeah, today’s choice is another Journey song but this one comes with a story.

About a year and a half ago, Anne and I were in New Orleans, walking down Royal Street in the French Quarter one fine morning. The day was bright but a bit chilly, and even though it wasn’t particularly early, there weren’t many people around. It was a Sunday, you see, and I like to imagine that most folks were nursing hangovers or in church, or maybe both. The street was slowly beginning to come to life as we strolled: shop owners were opening the shutters over their windows, a man in an apron was spraying the sidewalk with a hose (I probably don’t want to know what he was hosing away), and a hulking garbage truck was creeping slowly down the narrow 18th-century cross streets.

At one particular corner, we encountered a street musician, a pretty Asian woman playing the violin with skill and passion. (I’ve since learned that her name is Tanya Huang, and she’s a regular fixture on that corner.) We stopped to listen and after a moment, I realized that I knew the song. It wasn’t a classical piece or jazz… it was Journey. And well, cheesy as it sounds, I was moved by the moment and the location and the music, moved to take Anne’s hand and spin her around, then close in for some cheek-to-cheek. I even sang a bit to her, one of the lines I was certain I knew:

“Lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be

Oh, girl, you stand by me…

I’m forever yours, faithfully… “

I gave her a little dip, then suddenly felt sheepish because I realized we had an audience. Tanya was smiling at us as she played, and looking around, I saw a black man leaning against a door frame. When I caught his eye, he flashed me a huge grin and a nod. I nodded back at him, and for just a moment, I felt like I really got New Orleans, and maybe I even belonged there. Like I caught the fleeting, flashing, silvery spirit of the place in my hand long enough to feel its heat before it flew away.

That’s the sort of memory I’m always hoping to make when I travel, the kind that comes to define a place for you. I’ll be honest, our NOLA trip was a little bumpy for various reasons. But when I think of the place, my mind always goes to the moment I danced with my Anne in the middle of Royal Street to the melody of “Faithfully.”

“Faithfully” was released in the spring of 1983, just as I was finishing eighth grade. At the time, I thought it was pretty boring, just a sappy ballad; I much preferred the angry rocking sounds of “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” the single that had preceded “Faithfully” by a couple of months. But the song made it to number 12 on the Billboard charts in spite of my disdain, and I gradually came around on it. It’s become one of the band’s signature tunes and always leads to a sing-along and a lot of affectionate cuddling and swaying when they perform it live.

The video is something of a classic as well, the first documentary-style “life on the road” clip, which was later imitated by bands ranging from Bon Jovi to Richard Marx. It’s become something a cliche now — oh, another band singing about how tough it is to be out touring — but this song and this video still work. It worked in New Orleans, anyhow…

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A Song That Needs to Be Played Loud

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 5: A Song That Needs to Be Played Loud

“Rock and Roll.” Led Zeppelin. ‘Nuff said.

Oh, okay, fine, you know me better than that. I’ve almost always got more to say…

“Rock and Roll” comes from Zeppelin’s fourth studio album, commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV or ZoSo (owing to one of the arcane symbols on the record’s label; it’s a long story), although the LP was technically untitled. That’s the album with “Stairway to Heaven,” the one most likely to be owned by people who kinda-sorta like Zeppelin but haven’t gone into full-blown fandom. The song is a tribute to the early days of the rock genre: It opens with a speeded-up version of the drumline from the Little Richard oldie “Keep A-Knockin'” (fans of the movie Christine ought to know that one!) followed by a guitar riff that was supposedly an homage to Chuck Berry, and then nostalgic lyrics that speak of (among other things) “The Stroll,” a 1958 dance tune, and “Book of Love,” a hit record for The Monotones, also from 1958. While it was never formally released as a single for consumer sales, the song was distributed in the US as a promotional single, meaning it was was sent to radio stations for airplay, and it quickly became a staple in that venue. (I remember a local Salt Lake station, Rock 99, used the opening of the song for its television commercials; I was familiar with that ferocious drumbeat long before I ever heard the complete tune, or for that matter, had even heard of the band!)

The song was also a favorite during live performances starting from around the time of IV‘s release in 1971 until the band’s breakup in 1980. Having become one of Zeppelin’s signature tunes, it was naturally part of their brief reunion set at Live Aid in 1985 and again at the reunion shows at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. The video clip I’m posting here is from their performance at Madison Square Garden in 1973, when the band was at the peak of its powers. (It appears in the concert film The Song Remains the Same.)

Personally, I tend to run hot and cold on Zeppelin. I really love some of their stuff, and I’m really put off (and sometimes even bored) by other things. But from my early teens, this has been a song I truly love. Its energy is undeniable — I can’t resist shaking my head to it even nowadays when serious headbanging gives me a headache — and I love its reverence toward the genre’s childhood, even as it twists and warps the sound into something Little Richard probably never could have imagined. Come to think of it, though, that was Zeppelin’s whole thing, really… they were essentially playing the blues, just really loud and distorted blues.

One final thought before the video: The song has been covered many times by artists ranging from Heart (their version is intense… Ann Wilson is possibly the only woman in rock whose voice matches the soaring power of Zeppelin’s Robert Plant) to Great White, Van Halen, John Waite, Stevie Nicks, the Foo Fighters, and, most improbably, Alvin and the Chipmunks. I’m really trying to wrap my head around that one.

And now… turn it to 11, kids!

 

 

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A Song That Reminds You of Someone You’d Rather Forget

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 4: A Song That Reminds You of Someone You’d Rather Forget

This is a difficult category for me because… there really isn’t anyone that I’d rather forget. Seriously, no one. Not an old girlfriend, not a bully, not an authority figure I clashed with or anyone who done me wrong or hurt my feelings. Not that thoseĀ  things never happened to me. But, as Captain Kirk declares in Star Trek V, I need my painful memories as much as my happy ones. (Well, that was the gist of what he said, if not a direct quote… Star Trek V is one of my painful memories, you see, and I haven’t seen it in a very long time… ) The point is, we are the sum total of our experiences, good and bad. I could forget some people, but then I’d very likely be losing some component of myself too. And I don’t know if it’s worth the tradeoff. Not for me anyhow.

So… the best I can offer for this category is a song that reminds me of someone who hurt me once, and this song was… a memorable feature of the weeks that followed. But I haven’t forgotten that person, nor do I want to.

“I Don’t Care Anymore” comes from Phil Collins’ second solo album, Hello, I Must Be Going, and it can be seen as something of a companion piece to his first big hit, “In the Air Tonight.” It has a similar sound to “Air,” and like that one, it was prominently featured in a first-season episode of Miami Vice, helping to set the overall tone and style of that breakthrough television series. That episode of Vice wouldn’t air until a year after the song’s release, though, too late to provide much of a sales boost. “Don’t Care” barely cracked the top 40, peaking out at number 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the last week of March 1983. It’s a great song, though, especially if you’re pissed at someone and want to wallow in that feeling for a time. Just sayin’.

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A Song That Reminds Me of Summertime

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 3: A Song That Reminds You of Summertime

Never mind that Journey’s “Stone in Love” point-blank mentions “summer nights” and is packed with imagery that evokes what it’s like to be in love — or at least in lust — on those sweltering nights that never seem as long or as dark or as ripe with possibilities as when you’re young. No, I associate it with summer because of that time I was road-tripping with my friend Jeremy and we stopped in southern Utah to visit a cousin of his, and then we all spent the night cruising around St. George in his cousin’s car with the Escape album on endless replay in the CD player. Or maybe it was a cassette deck? Who can say now? It was a long time ago, possibly the last time I ever “cruised the main drag” like that, which is probably why it’s stuck in my memory the way it has. But why that particular song instead of something else on the album? I don’t know, unless it just somehow seemed to fit the mood of the event. Could’ve just been because that catchy opening riff and those wonderfully nostalgic lyrics I mentioned.

Escape was Journey’s seventh studio album. Released in 1981, it was the band’s biggest seller and now represents the peak of their inescapable (and still considerable, even now) popularity. It spawned four hit singles, including their signature classic “Don’t Stop Believin’.” “Stone in Love” was not one of those singles, but it become a staple of 1980s album-oriented rock radio, the stations that did “block-party weekends” every weekend.

There’s no “video” per se for this song, but the live-performance clip I found was recorded for MTV, which was then in its very early days, so I suppose that counts, right? The entire concert is available on DVD under the title Live in Houston 1981: The Escape Tour.

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A Song You Like with a Number in the Title

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 2: A Song You Like with a Number in the Title

I grew up listening to my mom’s old 45s, and then in my later teens, I constructed much of my identity around driving a classic car that had only an AM radio, which meant all oldies, all the time, when I was bombing around town in my Galaxie. The result was that I developed a lot of appreciation and affection for music from the 1960s and ’70s during a time when my peers were focused on then-current artists of the ’80s. I guess we’re all looking for some way to express our individuality at that age; mine was listening to throwback Baby Boomer music and fancying myself some kind of spiritual descendant of James Dean.

Three Dog Night was one of the biggest bands of that era, and one of my favorites during my throwback period; they landed 21 top-40 hits in the six years between 1969 and 1975, including three number-ones. “One,” which most people probably think is called “One Is the Loneliest Number” — actually the first line of the song, not its title — topped out at number five in the spring of 1969, which would’ve been a few months before I was born. Still a great song, though, and my pick for a tune with a number in the title.

Incidentally, a form of Three Dog Night is still touring, featuring two of the original ’60s/’70s era members. I haven’t see them, but I understand they put on a good show.

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