Love And Butane Is In The Air

March 26, 2011

As I surfed channels the other night, I couldn’t help but momentarily get sucked into an infommercial.

It was by Time-Life and for a nine-CD collection – Ultimate Rock Ballads.

Hosting the half-hour pitch to earn my affection, interest, and credit card number was REO Speedwagon lead singer Kevin Cronin. His sidekick was some chick who looked like a dental hygenist and likely had no idea who Kevin Cronin or REO Speedwagon was until her world and his collided in this cash grab.

Kevin Cronin wouldn’t stop smiling.

The pair became positively giddy when the hygenist asked Cronin if it could be possible to assemble such a collection of music.

He flat out declared that she couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it and he couldn’t do it. To even suggest it could be done by a mere mortal (or even a rock star) was akin to asking me to split the the atom.

But, Time-Life could.

(good for Time-Life – if you are such jet-fuel geniuses end global strife, put Japan back together, or, hell, just make me a sandwich)

And still Kevin Cronin kept smiling. It reached a point that he was freakin’ me out and I started to wonder if he’d ever killed a drifter.

Fortunately, the banter of Kevin & The Hygenist was broken up by clips of selections from the set.

There was the lovely Rindy Ross swaying with her saxophone as Quarterflash performed Harden My Heart on American Bandstand.

And I couldn’t help but wonder how much time – had I been a member of Toto – I would have wasted making fun of singer Bobby Kimball’s moustache as the video for Rosanna played.

According to the Wikipedia entry for power ballad, it is suggested that 1976 was the pivitol year that the power ballad truly became part of American consciousness as FM radio “gave a new lease of life to earlier songs like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven, Aerosmith’s Dream On, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird.”

(personally, I would defer to Wisconsin JB on all things musical in 1976)

1976 was also the year that Kiss had their biggest pop hit with the ballad Beth which, as I somewhat recall, caused more than a bit of angst for members of the Kiss Army.

That song, though, and the concept of a rock band broadening their audience with a softer sound would seem to be a precursor for the ’80s when the strategy was practically a given.

Foreigner had Waiting For A Girl Like You, Journey had Open Arms, and Mr. Cronin’s REO Speedwagon had Keep On Loving You which helped the group launch their mega-selling Hi Infidelity.

And, at the risk that it might cause Kevin Cronin’s head to spin off its axis, I suspect that – for better or for worse – I do own most, if not all, of the songs on Ultimate Rock Ballads.

Here are four ballads – some with less power than others – that were hits in the early ’80s for more rock-oriented bands…

Foreigner – Waiting For A Girl Like You
from Foreigner 4

Foreigner arrived with their first several albums prior to music being more than a casual affair to me. I associated the band with driving rock tracks like Hot Blooded and Double Vision that I’d hear blaring from the car stereo of a high school kid as he tore through our neighborhood.

But, by the time Foreigner released their cleverly titled fourth album, I was listening to the radio, if not actually purchasing music. In late 1981, the moody, keyboard-laden Waiting For A Girl Like You – moody keyboards courtesy of one, pre-science blinded Thomas Dolby – was inescapable.

Foreigner would continue to have hits well into the ’80s, but having found a new audience with this softer sound, the band would – unlike previously – rely on lighter songs for those singles.

J. Geils Band – Angel In Blue
from Freeze Frame

The R&B-laced blues-rock of J. Geils Band earned them comparisons to the Rolling Stones during the ’70s and the Boston band became a popular live act with the occasional hit song. The group notched major pop radio success with Freeze Frame and the massive hit song Centerfold and the title track.

While those songs, like much of their catalog, were raucous affairs, the third track pulled from the album was the downbeat Angel In Blue. It was hardly as big as the previous two songs from Freeze Frame, but the gorgeous, melancholy song retained the band’s soulful vibe and blue-collar grit as it told the tale of a world-weary cocktail waitress.

(for some reason, I’ve always mentally linked the unnamed waitress in Angel In Blue to Brandy in the hit by Looking Glass)

Night Ranger – Sister Christian
from Midnight Madness

Led by dual guitarists Jeff Watson and Brad Gillis – the latter had briefly filled in with Ozzy Osbourne after Randy Rhodes death – Night Ranger became a staple on our local rock stations with their 1983 debut and songs like Don’t Tell Me You Love Me and Sing Me Away.

Late that same year, the band issued its sophomore effort Midnight Madness and continued to get heavy airplay with (You Can Still) Rock In America and Rumors In The Air. But it was in the spring of ’84 that Night Ranger garnered attention on the pop stations and notched a Top Ten hit with the mid-tempo Sister Christian.

Slade – My Oh My
from Keep Your Hands Off My Power Supply

With their trademark misspelled song titles and glam-tinged hard rock, Slade released a string of monstrous hits in their native UK during the ’70s even as the band was largely ignored in the States. By the beginning of the ’80s, the quartet was being ignored in the UK as well.

Then, Quiet Riot had a breakthrough hit with Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize in the autumn of ’83 even as Slade was making a comeback in the UK with The Amazing Kamikaze Syndrome.

The album was repackaged and retitled, arriving in the US the following spring and, that summer, the band – aided by a popular video on MTV – had notched its first Top 40 hit Stateside with the raucous Run Runaway.

That fall, the anthemic ballad My Oh My became a minor hit and Slade’s final flicker of success in the US.


The Summer Of ’81

May 22, 2010

Rolling past a junior high school on the morning commute, I noticed that the final day of class was plastic lettered onto the marquee out front.

This week.

11:15.

Class dismissed.

I still had one more year of junior high when school broke for the summer in ’81, but it was the first summer for which I was legally and officially a teenager.

I got started quickly, sleeping in ’til ten.

In previous summers, I’d be up several hours earlier, my schedule hardly altering from the school year. There were places to go and things to do.

OK. I was on the outskirts of a town of less than three-thousand and there was a cornfield across the one-lane road from our house. There was nowhere to go and even less to do.

That was cool, though.

There were half a dozen kids, roughly the same age in our subdivision. We played a lot of baseball.

Little had changed in ’81.

There were still the same kids.

There was still baseball.

There was still nowhere to go and even less to do.

And, I knew it.

And I was less interested in baseball and more interested in Angie. I was quite smitten with her – a gangly tomboy of a girl with short, tousled red hair. We had hung out a lot that spring waiting for the same bus after school. Sometimes, we’d shoot hoops in the gym to kill the time.

But, she lived in a farmhouse several miles away with thirty-six brothers and sisters, a burly, overall-clad father, and a mother who was overly exuberant for Jesus and possessed a withering glare.

So, there was little need to be up early – I could be petulant at any hour – and that meant staying up late to maintain equilibrium.

Not that there was much to do late except sprawl out on the couch and search for something to watch between six television channels (if you counted PBS – and I don’t think it even aired past eleven).

Some nights I’d watch Johnny Carson and, on other nights, I’d check out the CBS Late Movie.

I was truly nocturnal for the first time that summer, usually not crashing until two, two-thirty in the morning. At which time of night, the viewing choices usually were winnowed down to the one independent station.

But it was late one night that I stumbled upon America’s Top 10 and the oddly engaging little fellow hosting the program. It was the first time I’d ever seen Casey Kasem.

Of course, I’d heard him before as the voice of the sandwich-loving stoner Shaggy in the Scooby Doo cartoons. I wouldn’t hear him counting down songs on the radio, though, for another six months when I happened upon American Top 40.

I was increasingly interested in music, so I watched as Casey gave a rundown of the Top 10 charts. I likely recognized the songs from the pop chart, some from the R&B chart, and few – if any – from the country one.

From then on through high school, I’d occasionally catch the show. As it was syndicated, it didn’t really seem to have a set schedule on our ABC affiliate. Usually I’d randomly find it on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, but, every now and then, it would air late, late at night after whatever regular programming had ended.

I’m not sure when it was exactly that I first saw America’s Top 10 or what songs Casey highlighted that week (hell, I barely remember what I had for breakfast), but according to a music chart archive I found, here are four songs that were in the Top 10 or from albums in the Top 10 from this week in 1981…

REO Speedwagon – Take It On The Run
from Hi Infidelity

Years of relentless touring helped make REO Speedwagon a radio fixture in the Midwest during the late ’70s and Hi Infidelity, released in late 1980, launched them to superstar status when Keep On Loving You ruled the airwaves in early 1981.

Though it was hardly rocket surgery, Hi Infidelity struck a chord with my classmates at the time with its straight-ahead rock and tales of romantic entanglements which were suddenly becoming something to which we could relate.

Of course, it was the album’s second quasi-ballad, Take It On The Run, that we were hearing in early summer of ’81.

John Lennon – Watching The Wheels
from Double Fantasy

In college, one of the most popular classes was one on the history of rock and roll. It was taught by a professor that was, apparently, one of the world’s most respected historians on The Beatles. Regrettably, I was never able to work the class into my schedule.

However, several friends took the class which began with the early years of rock and culminated around 1980. When the final class arrived, the professor would walk into class, play John Lennon’s Watching The Wheels and dismiss everyone for the semester.

AC/DC – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
from Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

Though it had been issued in the band’s homeland of Australia five years earlier, AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap didn’t receive a release in the States until the spring of 1981, following the massive success of the previous year’s Back In Black.

I’m certain that, at the time, I had no idea that I wasn’t hearing lead singer Brian Johnson but, rather, the late Bon Scott, whom Johnson had replaced on Back In Black. But it’s certainly the charismatic Scott that gives the song a charming menace that makes the song one of the band’s classics.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – The Waiting
from Hard Promises

Hard Promises found Heartbreaker’s lead singer Tom Petty fighting with the band’s distributor over the sticker price which had been scheduled to be tagged at a higher “superstar pricing.”

(a battle that Petty would win)

According to Wikipedia, Petty and the band were scheduled to be in the studio recording at the same time as John Lennon and Petty was eager for the opportunity to meet the music legend. Sadly, Lennon was murdered before the two could meet.

(as a tribute, the band had “WE LOVE YOU JL” etched onto the master copy of Hard Promises and, thus, the millions of copies which the album sold)

As for The Waiting, it sounded simply perfect on the radio that summer.