Where Have All The Astronauts Gone?

September 15, 2012

I entered school a mere half-decade after humans first set foot on the moon and, at the time, astronaut was a trendy career aspiration for kids our age.

Astronaut was a very cool gig.

You worked in space.

(the job sold itself on that alone)

Sometimes you returned home and found a bottle on the beach where you landed with Barbara Eden trapped inside.

Sometimes you ended up on a planet dominated by talking apes.

Space was the final frontier and it was full of possibilities.

In the early ’70s, we kids were led to believe that the future would resemble the world of the Jetsons.

Alas, the last moon landing had occurred in 1972 and the most important walk on the moon in our future was the one which The Police would sing about.

(it’s a great song, but not quite as cool as day shuttles to the moon while sophisticatedly and futuristically sipping Tang)

Being mobile but still diaper clad in 1969, I have no recollection of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface. It had to have been mind-boggling.

My only memory of the Apollo missions was hearing about a deranged, elderly aunt in Florida who had been to a few of the launches, an accomplishment that elevated her to quasi-celebrity status within the family.

By the ’80s, everyone was preoccupied by Rubik’s Cube, Jell-O Pudding Pops, and MTV and space was forgotten.

None of us became astronauts.

Here are four space-age songs…

Elton John – Rocket Man
from Honky Château (1972)

Sir Elton didn’t exactly do the profession of astronaut any favors with Rocket Man, making it sound about as appealing as working the fry station at a fast food joint. It’s cold, it’s lonely, and he readily admits he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

But, as a song, it’s a classic.

The Police – Walking On The Moon
from Reggatta de Blanc (1979)

Sparse and chilly, with a reggae vibe that was elemental to the sound of The Police, Walking On The Moon indeed captures the mood that I can imagine would be fitting for a stroll on the lunar surface.

If the next human to set foot on the moon is a music fan who lived through the ’80s, will they be able to do so and not have this song playing in their head?

A Flock Of Seagulls – A Space Age Love Song
from A Flock Of Seagulls (1982)

Even folks who lived through the ’80s probably remember A Flock Of Seagulls for no more than their debut hit I Ran (So Far Away), which was a Top Ten single, and lead singer Mike Score’s gravity-defying hair.

That’s too bad as I thought that the band’s blend of spacey synthesizers, effects-laden guitar, and sci-fi lyrics made for an engaging and interesting sound that stood out from a lot of their contemporaries and merited more than a footnote.

Though it wasn’t as successful as I Ran, I favored A Space Age Love Song from the moment I heard the full album. The song is breathtakingly wooshy and, at the time, it had a sonic vibe that sounded as if it might indeed be perfect for a romantic encounter in a future filled with jet packs and laser blasters.

Peter Schilling – Major Tom (Coming Home)
from Error In The System (1983)

In the autumn of ’83, I had opted to take German in hopes of a trans-Atlantic trip. That autumn, I had also discovered 97X, which had recently taken to the air as one of the first modern rock stations in the US.

So, my ears pricked up when the station began playing Major Tom (Coming Home) by the German musician Peter Schilling.

(I seem to recall that there was a German version which they would play)

Months later, Major Tom – a loose continuation of the tale of the character from David Bowie’s Space Oddity – was released in the States and became Schilling’s lone Top 40 hit and one of the more fondly remembered tracks of the period.

Advertisements

The Day My Universe And Sting’s Collided

January 22, 2011

I’m not absolutely sure, but, I think the first band whose entire catalog I owned was The Police.

Music was just beginning to be an obsession for me when the trio relesed Ghost In The Machine in the autumn of 1981. All I knew of the band were the hits – Message In A Bottle, Don’t Stand So Close to Me, and De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da – but I loved everything I had heard.

By the early summer of 1983 – with the arrival of The Police’s fifth album Synchronicity – my friend Beej, a Police obsessive, had caught me up on the four previous albums, dubbing me copies of them from his older brother’s vinyl.

I taped Synchronicity from the radio on Frog’s Midnight Album when it was debuted prior to its release and weeks before I could get into Cincinnati and to a record store to buy a copy.

And for a period of time, Sting was one of the coolest cats on the planet and The Police were as big as almost any act of the rock era.

In high school, The Police might have been the only band for which there was a consensus among all demographics.

And then they were gone.

Sting went on making music as did Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland.

(I might be one of the few people that owned both albums by Animal Logic, Copeland’s short-lived band in the late ’80s/early ’90s with bassist Stanley Clarke and singer Deborah Holland)

I hung with Sting’s solo career into the mid-’90s and though there were some moments that matched the brilliance of The Police – the gorgeous Fragile from …Nothing Like The Sun comes to mind – the music didn’t resonate as much as the stuff he’d done with Andy and Stewart.

Then, sometime in 2002 or so, I was doing some freelance work for Billboard and the editor contacted me about doing something on a new group’s debut album.

The interview with the band’s singer, Joe, began slowly. He was polite but there was a lot of silence coming from the other end of that trans-Atlantic call.

Then, I noted that one of the songs – titled Listen To My Babe – was, if you listened closely, not about a girl but a pet.

“Good man,” he said. “Good man.”

He seemed geniunely pleased and a bit surprised.

(apparently most reviewers had missed it)

Near the end of the call, I told Joe that, while doing some research, I had discovered that his father was Sting. which hadn’t been in the press material the publicist had sent to me.

He politely expressed not wanting that to have that be the focus and I assured him that, though I had to mention his father, I was writing about his band.

So, I was mortified when I read the piece in print.

The editors, who titled my submissions, had affixed a headline that mentioned Sting’s name but not that of the band.

Perhaps worse, a line had been added, one which I hadn’t written that – as I read it – stressed the advantage of having a well-known musician father in getting a record deal.

I felt horrible, but there was nothing to be done.

No more than a week or so later, I was speaking with a woman who, as the owner of a large yoga studio, had a number of famous clients. I knew her casually from a piece I had written on her years as a DIY musician in the ’80s.

I’d asked what she’d been up to and it turned out that she had just returned from some time visiting Sting and his wife in France.

She then informed me that she had mentioned to them that I had written about a reissue of one of her albums as well as about Joe’s band.

This news had, apparently, piqued Sting’s interest and – I was told – he proceeded to ask a number of questions about me.

Cool.

Not cool.

I realized that it was entirely possible that Sting had read or would read what I had written about his son’s band.

The man who had once been one of the coolest cats on the planet and whose lyrics I knew backwards and forwards when I was fifteen might actually have read something I had written.

And, if he had, he probably thought I was a douchebag.

I’ve always believed that The Police had an almost perfect career – five stellar albums that each sold millions released over five years and an exit from the stage as the biggest band on the planet.

Here are four tracks by The Police that just seemed right this morning…

The Police – Walking On The Moon
from Reggatta de Blanc

Sparse and chilly, with a reggae vibe that was elemental to the sound of The Police, Walking On The Moon indeed captures the mood that I can imagine would be fitting for a stroll on the lunar surface.

If the next human to set foot on the moon is a music fan who lived through the ’80s, will they be able to do so and not have this song playing in their head?

The Police – De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
from Zenyattà Mondatta

Three albums in and the British trio broke through with Zenyattà Mondatta which took them to the Top Ten on the album chart as well as the singles chart with the deceptively insightful and ridiculously catchy De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.

The Police – Invisible Sun
from Ghost In The Machine

The Police had begun to address political issues on Zenyattà Mondatta with songs like Driven To Tears and Bombs Away. With the moody, darkly tinged Invisible Sun, Sting’s lyrics broached the subject of the strife in Northern Ireland.

The Police – Synchronicity II
from Synchronicity

Like a lot of listeners during the summer of ’83, I wore out my copy of Synchronicity which spawned four hit singles including the aggressive Synchronicity II which gave guitarist Andy Summers an opportunity to cut loose.

I have to admit that, at the time, I found the song a bit jarring within the context of the album and – aside from manic squall of Mother – it was my least favorite song on the record.

(and, personally, I don’t think I knew anyone that liked Mother)

But, over the last twenty-five years, Synchronicity II has grown on me because it is so wickedly aggressive and apocalyptic.

Also, the lyrics resonate more as I now can relate to things like “every single meeting with his so-called superior” being “a humiliating kick in the crotch” and the depiction of the rush hour as a “suicidal race” amongst contestants “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes.”


January 16, 1982

January 15, 2011

Several folk whose music blogs are regular reads for me frequently make it their business to dissect and discuss the songs from the music charts for a particular week from the past.

Favorites such as The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, Echoes In The Wind, Songs Of The Cholera King, and 70s Music Mayhem are likely known to anyone who stops by here, too.

That last one – 70s Music Mayhem – is a recent discovery that is impressive in its painstaking attention to detail in breaking down the songs that happened to debut on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart for a given week from the ’70s.

Like a lot of music fans, Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 was appointment listening for several years of my childhood and, at some point, I’m sure that I stumbled across Billboard‘s Hot 100 posted in a record store.

Years later, Billboard would be a regular read and even an employer, but, in the early ’80s, what lurked beyond the forty songs Casey would count down each week was a mystery.

It’s 2011, though, and in this age of enlightenment, a good portion of Billboard‘s back issues are available to peruse online.

So, borrowing a bit from some of those blogs I’ve mentioned and to give myself a source of material when I’m not not pondering something mundane in particular, I thought that I’d take a page from one of those charts from yesteryear and chew on it.

I’m not sure when I first heard an episode of American Top 40, but I do know that I became a regular listener in January of ’82. At the time, I was halfway through the final year of junior high and music was becoming my favorite waste of time.

On a frigid, snowy Saturday morning, surfing the radio dial, I happened across Casey counting down the hits on WRIA, an adult contemporary station – as I recall – out of Richmond, Indiana.

From perusing those Billboard back issues, I suspect I was listening to the countdown from the week of January 16, 1982 when the following songs debuted on the Hot 100…

Soft Cell – Tainted Love
from Non-Stop Erotic Café
(debuted #90, peaked #8, 43 weeks on chart)

There were only a couple of songs that debuted this week which I didn’t immediately remember. The moody ’80s synth-pop classic Tainted Love isn’t one.

(though it didn’t reach radio stations in our area until the summer)

Skyy – Call Me
from Skyy Line
(debuted #87, peaked #26, 11 weeks on chart)

Call Me was a #1 on the R&B charts which would have meant nothing to me and it didn’t get played on the pop stations I was listening to.

It’s a perfectly fine dance-funk number with a bit of guitar that makes me think of Ray Parker, Jr’s The Other Woman from that summer.

Smokey Robinson – Tell Me Tomorrow
from Yes It’s You Lady
(debuted #86, peaked #33, 12 weeks on chart)

And though I wasn’t listening to R&B stations, I did, at least, know Smokey Robinson for the suave Being With You, which had been a huge hit the year before.

Tell Me Tomorrow is a mid-tempo crooner that wouldn’t have appealed to me then, but I kind of dig now.

The Oak Ridge Boys – Bobbie Sue
from The Oak Ridge Boys
(debuted #85, peaked #12, 14 weeks on chart)

The radio station in my hometown flipped from rock to country about a year or so before I began to truly care. My only interest in the station was for school closing anouncements on January mornings.

I am willing to listen to any of the dozens of Toto songs named for women. As for The Oak Ridge Boys, Elvira was more than enough and, in restrospect, I consider it karma that a friend from college once drunkenly yanked on the beard of William Lee Golden and asked if it was real.

(or so I heard)

Chilliwack – I Believe
from Wanna Be A Star
(debuted #83, peaked #33, 11 weeks on chart)

Speaking of Toto, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of folks would guess that the groovy, mellow I Believe might have been that band. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Toto IV.

Though it’s a perfectly amiable song, I Believe isn’t the ridiculously catchy My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone), the Chilliwack hit that had preceded it.

AC/DC – Let’s Get It Up
from For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)
(debuted #81, peaked #44, 9 weeks on chart)

I’m glad that we live in a world where there is AC/DC and I think that Bon Scott was amazing, but I listened to Let’s Get It Up three times this morning shopping and it left me with no impression.

Cliff Richard – Daddy’s Home
from Wired For Sound
(debuted #80, peaked #23, 13 weeks on chart)

At the time Daddy’s Home was a hit, I thought it was music for old people. I’m sure that while it was in the Top 40, Casey told me that it had originally been a hit for Shep & The Limeliters in 1961, but, here were are almost thirty years later and I still couldn’t tell you if I’ve heard that version.

John Denver And Plácido Domingo – Perhaps Love
from Seasons Of The Heart
(debuted #79, peaked #59, 7 weeks on chart)

Like a lot of kids in the ’70s, I thought John Denver was pretty groovy. This long-haired fellow in the floppy hat, traipsing around the Rockies with bear cubs and denim-clad hippie chicks on television specials was, in my five-year old mind, The Man.

Perhaps Love arrived well past the time when John Denver ruled the world. I didn’t know the song ’til I listened to it and…well…it might have been pleasant enough had it been Denver solo, but Plácido Domingo just doesn’t work for me.

The Police – Spirits In The Material World
from Ghost In The Machine
(debuted #76, peaked #11, 13 weeks on chart)

I know some listeners began to turn on The Police with Ghost In The Machine, but the band was one of the first to earn the unwavering allegiance of me and several of my closest friends. The album’s first hit had been the stunning – though angst-riddled – pop song Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic and I can understand why the follow-up wasn’t as big.

It is darker and less inviting, but I’ve always loved the moody, distant Spirits In The Material World and it’s so brief – less than three minutes – that I’ve never tired of hearing it.

Stevie Wonder – That Girl
from Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I
(debuted #72, peaked #4, 18 weeks on chart)

Stevie Wonder yearns for an unattainable girl who knows that she’s unattainable.

Just as I began listening to music, the legendary Stevie Wonder was wrapping up a decade and change of being a musical force, both commercially and critically. Since those months when I’d hear That Girl half a dozen times each day on one station or another, Wonder has released just a half dozen albums.

Journey – Open Arms
from Escape
(debuted #57, peaked #2, 18 weeks on chart)

There might not have been one junior high or high school kid in my hometown that didn’t own a copy of Journey’s Escape in late 1981.

I had no more than a handful of albums at the time, but one of them was a cassette of Escape. Then, in the winter months of ’82, Journey’s über-ballad became the biggest hit from one of the iconic rock albums of the early ’80s.

(though, even then, Mother, Father, which preceded Open Arms on side two, was the ballad that I’d rewind)