August 15, 2012

Paloma was already tired of hearing me voice the obvious during the opening ceremony of these London Summer Olympics. She finally cracked as we watched the closing ceremony.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s too bad Freddy Mercury isn’t alive for this, but we didn’t kill him.”

“It would have been epic,” I added to my lament.

Sure, it would have been epic if John Lennon and George Harrison were still alive and The Beatles had been around to perform, but it would have been epic simply because it was The Beatles.

But, if you want someone to work a room of several billion globally, Freddie Mercury doing what he did backed by his bandmates in Queen would have been well worth the price of admission.

The first thing I remember of Queen was News Of The World which was released when I was nine. Friends at school were twitterpated over We Will Rock/We Are The Champions.

(twenty minutes later, the former was already a staple at sporting events)

There was also an animated commercial for the album that I seem to recall seeing regularly.

I wasn’t into music and the commercial, featuring the robot from the album cover creeped me out.

I was just beginning to develop an interest in music when The Game spawned the mammoth hits Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Another One Bites The Dust several years later.

And when Hot Space landed with a thud in 1982, music had become an obsession and America – for the most part – had lost interest in Queen.

That was the same year I joined the Columbia Record & Tape Club and one of those dozen cassettes I received for that lone penny was Queen’s Greatest Hits.

I doubt that I knew even half of the cassette’s fourteen songs.

I don’t think I even knew Bohemian Rhapsody.

Out of that initial Columbia House haul, it was Queen Greatest Hits and The Best Of Blondie that I played until the tape stretched.

I had my first Walkman in 1984 when the band released The Works. I endured a family trek into Cincinnati early that spring, purchased a copy of The Works and – fulfilling my obligations as a sullen teenager – spent the trip listening to it.

Throughout high school, most of my friends were fans of Queen. Even though we were enamored with the New Wave and alternative rock of the time and the band’s ’80s output didn’t get the attention in the States that it received in the rest of the world, we remained devoted.

And, judging by the response in Olympic Stadium when Freddie Mercury finally did make an appearance, I wasn’t alone in wishing he had actually been there.

Queen might not have produced as much of their classic music during the decade, but here are four of their songs that I enjoyed in the ’80s…

Queen – Flash’s Theme
from Flash Gordon soundtrack (1980)

There seemed to be a lot of hullabaloo about the movie Flash Gordon prior to its release. At least I seem to recall it getting a lot of attention on the talk shows that would be on after school. I didn’t see it then, but I did later catch bits of the campy flick on cable.

Apparently Queen’s theme just missed the Top 40 in the US, but I don’t think I ever heard the song on the radio. But it was one of my favorites from that greatest hits collection. It’s pure adrenaline.

(and my friends and I were greatly amused by the dialogue in the song from a movie we didn’t see)

Queen with David Bowie – Under Pressure
from Hot Space (1982)

Under Pressure is gloriously brilliant.

At the end of 1981, perhaps over Christmas break, I had liberated a small, tabletop radio from my dad’s basement workspace. During that winter, I’d go to sleep most nights with it on and I’d often hear Under Pressure.

It sounded ominous to me and yet it drew me in.

It stood out from most everything else I was hearing.

I recognized the song as a future classic.

(and somehow only reached #29 in the US)

Queen – Radio Ga Ga
(Live Aid) (1985)

Queen’s performance at Live Aid received kudos. I got to see a few hours of Live Aid as it happened, but Queen performed before the US concert began, so I missed the epicness.

I know a lot of my friends hated Radio Ga Ga, but I dug it.

Yeah, the baby talk in the chorus seemed lazy, but the song was wistful and grand. Radio was beginning to matter less to me during those winter months in 1984 when Radio Ga Ga was getting airplay.

We didn’t have MTV, yet, so it wasn’t the visual medium snuffing out radio for me. Instead, I was spending more time listening to the music I was buying as often as I had cash and access.

Queen – I Want It All
from The Miracle (1989)

I purchased a pirated cassette of The Miracle from a street market in Thailand and was summarily disappointed.

I had heard I Want It All before I’d left the States and loved it. It was full of bravado and showcasing Brian May guitar heroics and the simple, anthemic chorus immediately lodged into the brain.

I’ve never gone back and revisited The Miracle, but I Want It All still commands my attention.

Run Zola Run

July 29, 2012

The first summer Olympics that I recall in more than fuzzy detail was the Los Angeles Games in 1984.

For me, the first thing that comes to mind from those games isn’t Carl Lewis or Mary Lou Retton, it’s Zola Budd.

It must have been in Sports Illustrated that I first read of Zola, a diminutive South African teenager who had broken the women’s world record in the 5000 meters, a record that was unrecognized as it had taken place in a race in her homeland.

I found Zola fascinating as she wasn’t much older than I was and, at an age when five years was forever, this gangly, curly-haired sprite was apparently smoking the adult runners against whom she competed.

And she ran barefoot.

I was a sixteen year-old kid in a small town in the American midwest and on the high school track team and this was exotic stuff.

In the days before constant media, Zola was a mystery to most of the world, and – in this pre-internet, pre-ESPN world – I don’t think I’d even seen footage of her running.

But she was in the sports news a lot in the time leading up to the 1984 Olympics, for record-setting performances and for being granted UK citizen to be able to compete in the games.

(South Africa athletes being banned from international competition because of their country’s apartheid system)

I was watching the night of the 3000 meter finals which had been hyped as a showdown between Zola and American Mary Decker.

Decker had been Zola a decade earlier, a teen-aged running prodigy in pigtails, who had missed chances for Olympic glory due to injuries and the 1980 US boycott of the Soviet games.

And I was watching when, halfway through the event, with Zola leading a pack including Decker, the two became entangled as Decker clipped Zola’s bare heel, sending the American tumbling in a heap into the infield.

As Decker writhed in pain at the side of the track, the race continued as the massive crowd of 85,000 spectators viciously booed.

It was brutal to watch.

Zola had been the target of ongoing protests because of being South African, but this was different. She had described Decker as her heroine and had posters of the older runner on her bedroom walls.

She led for another lap or two but faded to seventh, later explaining that she couldn’t quit, but that she couldn’t face receiving a medal in front of the hostile crowd.

That summer was one were my musical interests were continuing to undergo a shift. For the first time since I’d begun to really care about music a couple years earlier, Top 40 radio was losing sway with me.

Sure, I’d still listen to Top 40, but more often than not, it were the album rock stations that were favored and, once the sun set, I’d tune into the modern rock of 97X. It might have been the most unconsciously open-minded I’ve ever been about music.

Scanning through the Billboard Hot 100 chart for this week in 1984, most of it is familiar. Here are four of those songs…

Scandal featuring Patty Smyth – The Warrior
from The Warrior (1984)

My buddy Beej had turned me onto the debut mini-album by Scandal and not long after the band was getting a lot of radio attention with Goodbye To You and Love’s Got A Line On You. Their full-length debut pushed lead singer Patty Smyth to the forefront.

The Warrior might have been goofy – and the video didn’t help – but the song is an earworm and Smyth was the kid sister Pat Benatar might have had.

(and, oddly enough, as I watch the 2012 summer Olympics, tennis great/commentator John McEnroe – who is married to Smyth – is hanging with Bob Costas)

Bananarama – Cruel Summer
from Bananarama (1984)

My buddy Beej brought a lot of new music to us via his uncle, a college professor who lived in the city. So, we knew of Tears For Fears, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, and Echo & The Bunnymen before we might have heard them on the radio.

Bananarama was another one. The trio’s Deep Sea Skiving might not have been more than a cult hit in the States, but I did hear He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’ and Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye often when 97X went on the air in autumn of 1983.

I dug Bananarama, though I didn’t own Deep Sea Skiving as, for quite some time it, was an expensive import. And I dug the loping Cruel Summer (as well as Robert De Niro’s Waiting… from earlier that summer)

(then the group got involved with producers Stock Aitken Waterman and I was out)

The Cars – Drive
from Heartbeat City (1984)

I recently posted several songs by The Cars and there was great outrage over my neglecting to include Drive. Actually, the only reason that it didn’t make the cut was that I knew I had written about the song before.

However, Drive is certainly among my favorite songs by The Cars and I took note of it the first time I popped in a copy of Heartbeat City not long after the album was released in the spring.

The song was so atypical for the band, a lush, dreamy ballad sung by bassist Ben Orr. As pretty as Drive is, it has a desperate, dark undercurrent to it which was reinforced by the video which seemed like something Rod Serling might have conjured.

Quiet Riot – Mama Weer All Crazee Now
from Condition Critical (1984)

No metalhead was I, but there was a bit of hullabaloo surrounding the release of Condition Critical, Quiet Riot’s follow-up to the mega-selling Metal Health from the year before. That album had brought metal to the mainstream, topping the album charts and spawning a Top Ten single with the group’s cover of Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize.

I recall a few of the rock station’s hyping the arrival of Condition Critical and MTV – which we had just gotten access to earlier that summer – heavily playing the first single, another Slade cover.

I was mostly indifferent to Mama Weer All Crazee Now as most of the public proved to be as well. Ratt had become the token hard rock act on pop radio that summer with Round And Round and both Condition Critical and Quiet Riot were summarily relegated to the cut-out bins.

Au Revoir, Canada

March 3, 2010

Well, for the first time in two weeks I’m not watching NBC‘s coverage of the Olympics and I am having the same disoriented feeling as I do during the switch to/from Daylight Savings Time.

I miss Al Michaels.

I’m wondering what’s going on in Whistler.

And though I never did quite understand curling, the event had me spellbound.

But it was all pretty swell. You did good, Canada.

You won a record amount of gold medals and the US won a record amount of total medals.

(and Canada got the gold in hockey which means we can pull the sharp objects out of storage in Buffalo and ship them back across the border)

Actually, even outside North America, everyone seems to be going home with a smile. The one exception, I suppose, would be Yevgeny Plushenko, the Russian skater, who mouthed off after settling for a silver medal.

I liked Plushenko. Sure he was less than gracious, but he also looked like Nick Gilder (or, at least Nick Gilder as I remember seeing him singing on television) of Hot Child In The City-fame. That song makes me think of summer and it makes me think of Paloma.

So, I’m giving him a pass.

And the closing ceremony of the Olympics was a well-done affair.

You get Neil Young, William Shatner, Catherine O’Hara, and Michael J. Fox together and it’s a compelling roster for someone that was a kid in the early ’80s.

(though I really didn’t get to know Neil until college)

The only thing that the past two weeks was missing was John Candy.

(imagine the insights he might have offered into curling – it would have been brilliant)

So, thanks for everything, Canada. Take a twenty out of petty cash and get yourself something nice.

The amount of stellar music from the Great White North is ridiculous. So, instead of the more obvious choices, here’s a quartet of songs from some less-appreciated (at least less appreciated here, south of the border) Canadian acts…

Red Rider – Big League
from Victory Day

From the personal experience of working in record stores years ago, I can assure you that everyone knows Red Rider’s Lunatic Fringe, but few people could tell you the name of the song or who does it. During the ’80s, the band had a few other songs that got a bit of airplay, but they were never able to break here in the States.

(lead singer Tom Cochrane would desrevedly find success with Life Is A Highway)

Big League is based on the true story of a prize, high-school hockey prospect who was killed in a car accident. Supposedly Cochrane was inspired to write the song after meeting the player’s father who told him that his son had been a fan of the band.

Bran Van 3000 – Cum On Feel The Noize
from Glee

When I stumbled upon Glee, I was an instant fan of the Canadian ensemble Bran Van 3000 and their engaging melange of alternative rock and hip-hop. I gushed about it to Paloma who, when she finally heard the album, was duly unimpressed.

For their cover of the Slade/Quiet Riot classic Cum On Feel The Noize, the group takes a decidedly low-key and jangly approach to good effect.

The Pursuit Of Happiness – I’m An Adult Now
from Love Junk

I was still in college when I first heard I’m An Adult Now and was greatly amused by the humorous take on growing up. It’s still a pile-driving, power-pop tour de force (produced by Todd Rundgren) that I adore, but the humour is a bit more gallows in nature now.

Rush – Tom Sawyer
from Moving Pictures

Yeah, I was going to highlight some overlooked Canadian acts, but, though incredibly successful here in the US, Rush have been underappreciated. Plus, it was twenty-four years ago this week that I saw them live.

Rush had a small, but ardent following in our high school that consisted mostly of the jocks and the kids in band – two clans who rarely intermingled but could find common ground in the beloved trio’s music.

As for Tom Sawyer, everyone – no matter what their taste in music – dug the song.