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.

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Friday Night Videos And The First Chill Of Autumn

September 18, 2011

The living room of our treehouse is a very cozy nook to me.

From the second floor perch at the corner of a T intersection, there is often a steady flow of traffic and pedestrians to observe.

A friend once called and asked what I was doing.

“Watching Afternoon Traffic Theater,” I replied, describing the actual scene playing out down below, some twenty-yards away – two middle-aged woman who had had some minor mini-van tête-à-tête.

I covered the incident until its underwhelming conclusion without lifting my head from the back of the couch and with most of my attention focused on ESPN.

But the room is usually a calm place with the traffic usually nothing more than a steady, soothing background hum almost like the urban equivilant of ocean surf.

It’s a glorious place to have the windows open.

Tonight, there’s something in the air that arrived with the setting sun a couple hours ago.

(aside from a very luminous moon through the tree branches)

For the first time, as summer ends, there’s a chill in the evening air that is unmistakeably autumn to me.

As a kid, that hint of chill was the signal that the months of sleeping with the bedroom window open – a necessity growing up in a ’70s-styled ranch house with no central air – was coming to an end.

The hum of the interstate, a mile down the country road running in front of the house but audible at night, would soon no longer be lulling me to sleep.

(but those last few nights with the window open and the crispness in the night air did make for the best sleep of the year)

When that chill arrived in 1983, it did so a mere six weeks or so following the debut of Friday Night Videos.

MTV wouldn’t be available to us until the following summer, though my friends whose families had cable had been watching music videos on WTBS’ late-night, weekend show Night Tracks all summer.

(my buddy Beej would rattle off the names of bands whose videos he had seen that were unfamiliar to us)

Though video clips for songs had existed for years, MTV had become a phenomenon in the early ’80s and Friday Night Videos offered those of us without cable ninety minutes each week to feel like we were living in the modern world.

Here are four songs whose videos I most certainly saw on Friday Night Videos as autumn arrived in 1983…

Billy Idol – Dancing With Myself
from Don’t Stop

With a mere ninety minutes less commercials, Friday Night Videos had little time to show more than videos that were popular songs or new. In 1983, Billy Idol’s Dancing With Myself was neither.

The song had appeared on Idol’s four-song EP debut from two years earlier, but, since its release, the singer had a couple hits from his self-titled full-length album with Hot In The City and White Wedding.

I don’t think that I ever heard the energetic and catchy Dancing With Myself on the radio, but the apocalyptic, zombie-filled video seemed to pop up on Friday Night Videos each week until Idol’s Rebel Yell album was released later that fall.

Quiet Riot – Cum On Feel The Noize
from Metal Health

From all I’ve read and based on a few first-hand accounts, Quiet Riot lead singer Kevin DuBrow worked ceaselessly to break his band. Then, he proceeded to alienate most of the music industry and Quiet Riot, who had been the first metal act to have a Number One album in the US, plummeted back to obscurity (with DuBow getting fired from the band).

However, during the autumn of ’83, Quiet Riot’s cover of Slade’s classic Cum On Feel The Noize was inescapable and Metal Health was heard blaring from every car stereo in our high school parking lot

The Motels – Suddenly Last Summer
from Little Robbers

With the sultry vocals of lead singer Martha Davis and their moody style of New Wave-tinged rock, Los Angeles’ The Motels had broken through the year before with the Top Ten ’80s classic Only The Lonely.

As I headed back to school in 1983, the band had issued its follow-up, Little Robbers, introduced by the single Suddenly Last Summer. The wistful, almost eerie song became a second Top Ten hit for The Motels and the song’s video apparently featured one of Davis’ daughters.

(and, somewhere out there, there might be a compilation of The Motels featuring liner notes by yours truly)

The Stray Cats – (She’s) Sexy + 17
from Rant N’ Rave With The Stray Cats

I didn’t really like rockabilly revivalists The Stray Cats when their Built for Speed became a smash in late 1982 and Rock This Town and Stray Cat Strut were constantly on the radio. They were a band that might have existed when my parents were in high school which was not a selling point.

By the time Rant N’ Rave With The Stray Cats was released, I was becoming more curious about lots of different music and I was more receptive to the retro trio. Plus, (She’s) Sexy + 17 was too damned catchy to dismiss.


Time To Burnish My Legacy

November 19, 2009

As someone commented the other day, I’m old.

Well, not really. I mean, I am older than I was, but I’d like to think that I am not close to as old as I will be.

However, since my brush with death last week, I’ve been giving great thought to my mortality and the things I have yet to achieve.

(it really wasn’t so dire and I rarely think of my own mortality aside from the fact that it would be an unimpeachable excuse to stay home from work)

I do eyeball the obituaries in the New York Times most days. It’s nothing morbid. Some of it is a natural interest in current events.

Some of it is because of a game a couple of friends and I played when we were co-workers, working on Billboard‘s musical database. When an artist died, whoever removed them from the database first received a small, photocopy the size of a postage stamp of a skull and crossbones.

This competetion became quite heated and we proudly taped our “kills” to our cubicle walls.

But, one reason to read the obituaries in the Times is for the intriguing taglines like “Robert Rines, Inventor and Monster Hunter, Dies at 87 ” or “William Belton, Self-Taught Ornithologist, Dies at 95.”

I’d like something like that for myself when the time comes except I am not an inventor, monster hunter, or self-taught ornithologist. I have done pioneering work in the combination of peanut butter and bacon as a sandwich and I do quite like those Monsterquest documentaries, though.

But, the only thing involving birds that I have taught myself, so far as I can think, is how to make fried chicken (though I’m more inclined to drag Paloma out of the way on a road trip for such foodstuff).

So, in the meantime, I’ve got some work to do. Fortunately, I’m hoping I have some time to amass some accomplishments that will result in an eye-catching lead when I do finally shuffle onward.

Here are some songs by artists who have passed away in the month of November in years past…

Quiet Riot – Cum On Feel The Noize
from Metal Health

From all I’ve read and based on a few first-hand accounts, Quiet Riot lead singer Kevin DuBrow worked ceaselessly to break his band. Then, he proceeded to alienate most of the music industry and Quiet Riot, who had been the first metal act to have a Number One album in the US, plummeted back to obscurity (with DuBow getting fired from the band).

However, during the autumn of ’83, Quiet Riot’s cover of Slade’s classic Cum On Feel The Noize was inescapable and Metal Health was heard blaring from every car stereo in our high school parking lot. DuBrow, who later rejoined the band, passed away on November 19, 2007 of a cocaine overdose.

Chris Whitley – Power Down
from Terra Firma

Texan Chris Whitley went from busking on the streets of New York City to being one of the musical surprises of 1991 when his debut Living With The Law found favor with critics and fans. It took four years for him to follow it up and, when he did he incorporated elements of grunge, alternative rock, and dissonant noise to his bluesy folk rock.

Power Down is a smoldering four minutes of jagged, wiry rock. Sadly, the underappreciated Whitley – who counted artists including Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby, Tom Petty, Iggy Pop, John Mayer, Daniel Lanois and Keith Richards among his admirers – passed away from lung cancer on November 20, 2005.

Bow Wow Wow – Do You Wanna Hold Me?
from When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going

Bow Wow Wow was formed when impresario Malcolm McClaren poached Adam’s Ants and made teen-aged ingenue Annabella Lwin lead singer. The result was one of the iconic songs of the ’80s with their version of The Strangeloves’ I Want Candy.

The group also had a minor hit with the equally energetic (if less remembered) Do You Wanna Hold Me? Guitarist Matthew Ashman died of diabetes-related complications on November 21, 1995, but, having been in both Adam & The Ants and Bow Wow Wow, he managed to be in two of the most beloved acts of the New Wave era.

Manic Street Preachers – This Is Yesterday
from The Holy Bible

Almost unknown in the States, the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers have been superstars in the UK for two decades. And, anyone who has followed the band is well aware of their history, particular rhythm guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards, who mysteriously vanished in February, 1994.

The lovely, melancholic This Is Yesterday appeared on The Holy Bible, the group’s third album and one which is regarded by many critics to be as powerful as and the equal of Nirvana’s landscape-changing Nevermind. Edward’s vanished a day prior to embarking on a US protional tour for the record.

Edwards has never been found (though he has been “sighted” everywhere from India to the Canary Islands). It was only on November 23, 2008 that he was officially declared to be “presumed dead.”