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.

January 17, 1981

January 15, 2012

Thirty one years ago, I was seeking out music for – really – the first time.

Sure, there had previously been songs here and there that had captured my attention and a few 45s that I’d prodded the parents to purchase, but I would have had barely enough material to compile a desert island list.

Weeks earlier, on New Year’s Day, I had, inexplicably turned on the radio and tuned in to Q102, a Top 40 station from Cincinnati that was popular with my junior high classmates. I didn’t listen to the radio much, if ever, but as I listened I realized that the station was counting down the top 102 songs of 1980, the year that had just ended.

And, even more unexpectedly, I pulled out a tape recorder, popped a blank cassette into the unit, placed the recorder up against the radio, and spent the rest of the day taping those 102 songs.

By the middle of January, I had listened and relistened to those half dozen or so cassettes repeatedly, becoming familiar with the popular music of 1980, most of which I had little familiarity.

I was also tuning into Q102 daily, especially for the station’s Top Ten At Ten, the daily countdown of the most requested songs of the day and a staple of debate amongst friends at school the following day.

It would be another year before I’d begin purchasing music on a regular basis or start listening to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. Billboard meant roadside advertising to me.

But, thirty one years ago, there were half a dozen songs debuting on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100, some of which I knew from those nights listening to Q102…

McGuffey Lane – Long Time Lovin’ You
from McGuffey Lane (1980)
(debuted #97, peaked #85, 7 weeks on chart)

Growing up within spitting distance of the Ohio border, I’d heard the name McGuffey Lane as they were a regional act from Columbus, but I couldn’t have named a song by the band and didn’t recognize Long Time Lovin’ You by name.

But as soon as I started listening to Long Time Lovin’ You, I instantly remembered the song. I imagine that I heard it on our hometown radio station which favored light rock and country as the song has a decidedly country rock feel.

The loping melody and tale of love ruined by too much time on the road has a catchy chorus and, though a bit generic, isn’t a bad song. It’s certainly something I enjoy more now than I would have then.

Terri Gibbs – Somebody’s Knockin’
from Somebody’s Knockin’ (1980)
(debuted #94, peaked #13, 22 weeks on chart)

I certainly knew Somebody’s Knockin’ from Q102. The song by blind Georgian pianist was a fixture on the station during the first few months of ’81 and earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song.

Somebody’s Knockin’ straddles the line between country and light pop. Its slick production doesn’t diminish the backwoods vibe and Gibb’s vocals which recount her struggle with the temptations offered by a mysterious stanger.

Slave – Watching You
from Stone Jam (1980)
(debuted #90, peaked #75, 6 weeks on chart)

Slave is a name I know that I’ve seen at one time or another rifling through bins in record stores, but I’ve never been a major R&B devotee. As a kid, there wasn’t a lot of soul on the stations to which I was listening.

Like McGuffey Lane, though, Slave was an act from Ohio, Dayton, to be specific. I do know that there were a number of funk acts from that city during the ’70s and early ’80s like Ohio Players, Lakeside, and Zapp and Watching You is a snappy bit of mid-tempo, light funk, an playful ode to watching girls pass by.

Queen – Flash’s Theme
from Flash Gordon soundtrack (1980)
(debuted #79, peaked #42, 10 weeks on chart)

There seemed to be a lot of hullabaloo about the movie Flash Gordon prior to its release and, then, it bombed. I think that I caught a bit of the campy flick on cable years ago but not enough to care one way or another about it.

Queen was a band that we did care about, though, at the time. The legendary band was coming off of the spectacular success of The Game and, as I recall, both Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Another One Bites The Dust had both been in the top ten for the year on that year-end countdown I’d taped from the radio.

I don’t remember actually hearing the band’s dramatic theme (complete with melodramatic dialogue from the film) to Flash Gordon on the radio in 1981, but it did appear on Queen’s Greatest Hits release from later that year. The cassette version of that album was one of my initial purchases when I joined the Columbia Record & Tape Club a year later.

Pat Benatar – Treat Me Right
from Crimes of Passion (1980)
(debuted #68, peaked #18, 18 weeks on chart)

Pat Benatar’s rise to superstar status coincided with my teenage years and she was fetching in spandex, so she could have been singing Bolshevik work songs and she’d have had the attention of me and my friends.

But Benatar had a string of inescapable hits during the early ’80s that made her a staple on most of the crude mixtapes I was making from the radio. I was a fan, but Treat Me Right never quite hooked me the way that stuff like Heartbreaker, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, or Shadows Of The Night did.

John Lennon – Woman
from Double Fantasy (1980)
(debuted #36, peaked #2, 20 weeks on chart)

In mid-January of 1981, the world was a mere five weeks out from the brutal murder of John Lennon. My interest in music, just beginning to take root, gave me little perspective on the death of Lennon and I had little reaction. It would be years before I would mourn the event and the loss of Beatle John.

However, I imagine at the time it was difficult for folks who had grown up with The Beatles to hear the music from Lennon’s just-released Double Fantasy album and his death provided added poignancy to the gentle, lovely ballad Woman.

The Union Jack

January 12, 2012

“You look different,” Paloma said.

As I had done nothing new with my hair, I countered her comment with a quizzical, gape-jawed stare.

“You’re standing up.”

It was true. I was vertical as opposed to the horizontal posture I had been prone to adopt for much of the past week as the result of sharing my immune system with some miserable, little bug.

And several times during the week, too enfeebled with fever to do more than slump on the couch, too weary from coughing fits to even turn my head toward the television, I stared straight ahead to the wall where I’d zone out in the pattern of the large Union Jack flag hanging there.

The flag has been with me for a long, long time, acquired during one of the many high school treks into Cincinnati with friends to roam through the malls searching for girls, music, and Orange Julius.

It was about this time of year, a couple weeks after the new year that a handful of us were on such a venture.

It was frigid outside and, inside, there were “sidewalk” sales during which the stores would take the crap that they hadn’t been able to unload at Christmas weeks earlier and piled the wares onto tables at discounted prices.

Outside one of the storefronts, I found my buddy Streuss, in his hand he clutched a Union Jack.

“You’re buying a British flag?”

“Five bucks, man. I’m hanging it up in my bedroom.”

England was some faraway land and I don’t recall much Brittania in my life as a kid.

A television station out of Dayton would air Benny Hill reruns late on Saturday nights. My neighbor Will and I would watch the hijinks through the snowy reception on the Magnavox in his family’s den.

In junior high school, I might have actually thought England was little more than slapstick, double entendres, and scattily-clad women.

But I soon discovered music and, especially in the early ’80s, there was plenty of it arriving in America from England. Even before I ventured far from Top 40 and mainstream rock radio, I was hearing The Police, Human League, The Fixx, A Flock Of Seagulls, Duran Duran…

And, of course there was the previous twenty years of exports from the British isle with whom I would become increasingly familiar.

I grabbed the remaining flag from the table. It was only five bucks, marked down from sixty-five (which would have been like twelve-thousand dollars in today’s dollars).

It was too good a deal to pass up.

And, for the past twenty-five years, that Union Jack has been hanging on the wall wherever I’ve lived.

Perusing the Billboard charts from twenty-five years ago, there were more than a few acts hailing from the U.K. Here are four that I recall…

Pete Townshend – Give Blood
from White City: A Novel (1985)

Had I been ten years older, I might well have associated the Union Jack with The Who, but the first truly iconic use of the British flag that I noted was when Def Leppard exploded onto the scene in ’83 with Pyromania.

Coincidentally, at the time I bought my Union Jack, Who guitarist Pete Townshend had recently released White City. These days, I’d probably favor All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, but White City is pretty stellar (aside from the hit Face The Face) and the bracing Give Blood – with David Gilmour making an appearence – was a favorite.

Roger Daltrey – Under A Raging Moon
from Under A Raging Moon (1985)

And, coincidentally, Who lead singer Roger Daltrey had also recently released a solo album that, like Townshend’s, got some attention.

There were a few songs written by Bryan Adams (and his writing partner Jim Vallance) and much of Under A Raging Moon was rather uninspired, but it did include After The Fire, a fantastic track penned by Townshend.

The title track to Under A Raging Moon, a tribute to The Who’s late drummer Keith Moon, was notable for Daltrey’s ferocious vocals and the line-up of guest drummers – Martin Chambers, Roger Taylor, Cozy Powell, Stewart Copeland, Zak Starkey, Carl Palmer, and Mark Brzezicki – that perform on it.

Queen – One Vision
from A Kind Of Magic (1986)

Queen had peaked in America with The Game, which was released while I was in junior high and the stuff that followed from the legendary band – ’82’s Hot Space and ’84’s The Works – were largely ignored.

But the band remained popular with me and several friends and we were stoked when One Vision arrived in late ’85. It was on the soundtrack to some action flick whose name escapes me (and I’m too lazy to look up), one of several soundtracks in the ’80s that featured Queen’s music.

One Vision sounded great on the car radio that winter when we all spent a lot of time in the car together, usually going nowhere in particular, and the result was often everyone joining in on Freddie Mercury’s closing request for fried chicken.

The Cure – Close To Me
from The Head On The Door (1985)

Streuss had discovered The Cure with The Head On The Door, most likely via the memorable video for the perky – at least musically – Close To Me. He was soon catching up on their earlier albums which made me intimately familiar with much of their catalog before the band broke to the masses.