Eliot Wolff was both '80s new guard and '60s throwback. Wolff found his lane in the Brill Building tradition. After paying his dues on keyboard with a then-fading Peaches & Herb, he met a then-fading Freddie Perren. Perren had co-written and produced Herb's "Shake Your Groove Thing" and Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," probably his masterpiece. But it was 1983, and Perren was trapped by the disco backlash. His small redemption came from boy bands, Perren started working with New Edition's Johnny Gill on a solo album, and this is where the visually unfunky Eliot Wolff found his calling as a funky staff writer for Perren. Together, they cranked out dozens of ground floor jams including Gill's "Super Love." As a songwriter, Wolff basic and efficient. He never started with the chords. When an idea popped in his head, he'd sing it into his cassette recorder. If it stayed there for a half hour, it had earworm potential and he started work on it, writing the chords only after he found a catchy melody and groove that he liked. He'd then call a singer over to his apartment for the demo. And this is how "Straight Up" was born. It was Abdul's mom who heard of Wolff and asked for the demo. Listening back together, mom thought it was so bad, she threw the demo into the trash. But Abdul heard something else. She had to meet the super funky Wolff. "So I go to this apartment, expecting his R&B dude. He opens the door and I see this slight framed guy with red frizzy hair, Coke bottle glasses and he's walking around in socks. He's kind of quiet. And I go, 'Where are we going to be recording?' He said, 'In my shower here.'" Abdul could have made an about face for the door on that line, but she stayed and cut her version. It worked out for them both.
The big note at the end of "When I'm With You" is both impressive and oddly not impressive. First, credit where credit is due, unlike Milsap's note below, Curci leads into his with a longer phrase. He sings at least eight notes before hitting that dramatic high B. That's one big gulp of air before starting in his natural register and moving almost two octaves up. Holding a note in falsetto for that long, at that high of a pitch, is not easy. But Curci had some help. Clearly producer Stacy Heydon begins to cake on the reverb around five seconds into to the note, which is commonly used to hide pitchiness and, more sinisterly, a tape edit. Could Curci have hit the note, Heydon extended is via editing and then hid the slice under a thick reverb? My guess is it's all Curci, but he might have fallen a little flat near the end, requiring a boost from Heydon's effect. Either way, it is impressive and worthy of a hat tip.
Let's pause for a minute to appreciate the improbable rise of mustached Canadian journeyman Stacy Heydon. Heydon got his big break through footwear. Not his own, mind you, but he cut the music for an early '70s Red Wing sneaker commercial. That tape was in the pocket of Heydon's good friend when he got a dream roadie gig for David Bowie's massive 1976 tour. Earl Slick was prepared to take the lead guitar role, but had a falling out with Bowie over his management. With the tour due to start in weeks, the Red Wing cassette made its way to Bowie's ears and a phone call was placed to Heydon's girlfriend in Canada. She hung up. Bowie called a second time. He was used to this, everyone from Reeves Gabels to Page Hamilton have hung up on a David Bowie telephone call. Stacy Heydon answered that call, flew to Jamaica, auditioned and got the gig. He had never been south of Cleveland in his life. Heydon traveled the world that year, opening each Bowie show with the feedback drenched solo for "Station To Station." He served admirably, if somewhat anonymously, next to the legendary Alomar, Davis, Murray rhythm section. After the tour, Bowie traveled to Paris working with Ricky Gardiner, then Berlin with Robert Fripp. But in a world of Mick Ronsons, Earl Slicks and Adrian Belews, Stacey Heydon was lost in the shuffle and never recorded with David. But one Bowie tour was enough. Heydon toured with Iggy Pop in 1979, then made the transition to production with a suitably anonymous but reliable discography. Sheriff's "When I'm With You" was his biggest production credit. Nice guys finish first. He made it to number one before all those other guitarists. And it wouldn't have happened without those sweaty sneakers.
Have this weird theory about Genesis: They didn’t go to the mainstream, the mainstream came to them. For the most part. Think about the gatekeeper of Top 40 radio in 1986, The Program Director. In most markets at that time, this was typically a white guy in his thirties, the type of radiohead who started his career in the days of Freeform FM. Now imagine him at 24, wildly ambitious, rocking his favorite deep cuts of 1974 with the looming shadow of corporate radio just outside the studio door. These were audio junkies who likely geeked out over Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye and Genesis on the hi-fi, man. Fast forward back to the eighties and these guys were still trying to retain some thread of that spirit while The Man was beginning to muscle in on their playlists. Marvin was gone. Floyd was on hiatus. But they still had Genesis, they still had Phil. So while they did have to cater to the Madonna and Michael singles for the kids, who wouldn’t want to slip their longtime faves in, especially when the material sounded this big and bright. Meanwhile, three progressive/art rockers are on a trajectory. They are becoming better songwriters and aren’t afraid to show it. The melodies are stronger, the hooks better arranged. No doubt, they are capable of pop songs, but most of their new album is probably just a curious to their ears as they make it. Separate yourself from your Top 40 memories for a minute, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” is a weird song. Brooding, dark and dense with Phil raving on about monkeys and getting away from people. Sure it has an attractive chorus, but so did Phil’s old collaborator Brian Eno. And “Take Me Home” doesn’t sound a million miles away from stuff like “Here He Comes” and “On Some Faraway Beach.” So here’s a band incorporating their newfound skills but, record sales aside, there is absolutely art rock fingerprints all over this stuff. Edit it down (often several minutes) for the single, normalize the image for MTV and hand this album to this aforementioned program directors and you have a lane for Genesis to be accepted by the mainstream. Millions of plays later, it certainly feels like straight ahead pop, but was it?
I see Wilson Phillips as a nepotistic outlier. Kids with connections get to record with David Foster. But right underneath them was Sinead O’Connor, Bell Biv Devoe, Madonna, Mariah Carey and En Vogue. Aside from Phil Collins last gasp and Michael Bolton, there’s very little Boomer activity noticeable on that chart. No overhyped singles from former Beatles and ‘60s icons. No ballads from 40-something singers. It’s a very young and forward thinking chart in 1990 and that all started with new icons and beats emerging in 1989. A new wave in rock finally arrived the following year, but it wasn’t the first shots fired.
I’ll be super enthused about three of them. Christine McVie’s gorgeous “As Long As You Follow,” which could have been on “Tusk” alongside “Over And Over.” Then there’s the inimitable “Doctorin’ The Tardis.” Should’ve been up there with “Pump Up The Volume” in terms of its American commercial impact. Def Leppard was discussed elsewhere in the comments section, but I’ll just add that it has a terrific pre-chorus construction with that ramp up “oooooh” backing vocal. And of course Steve Clark’s playful guitar solo, which hangs in the air like Heaven after he finishes.
It doesn’t get the credit 1991 does, but 1989 might very well be the year Gen X pop listeners finally wrestled control of the charts away from Baby Boomer radio programmers. If you look at 1988’s year end chart, programmers were still forcing past-due-date singles by George Harrison and Steve Winwood down American ear canals. The believed their younger listeners wanted another paint-by-numbers Whitney Houston ballad to go with the last one. They were still game to try this same approach in 1989, with today’s number one and a future paint-by-numbers Bette Midler number one, but something felt different. Rock wasn’t quite minting a new hit sound just yet, so the kids did what kids do and starting dancing to new beats. Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson all had massive year end hits with uptempo jams that sounded nothing like anything in 1988. So the writing was already on the wall. No more random, bland pop-rock bands like Cutting Crew and Escape Club. No more so-called comebacks for Beatles and Stones. Gen X was already crowning their own generation’s stars in 1989. Two years later, the process would be complete.
It is interesting that Motley’s trajectory grew considerably more pop after “Pyromania.” “Theatre of Pain” certainly had a Burnstein/Mensch/Lange approach to how it courted radio both in terms of songs and promotion. Seriously, they had help, but Def Leppard changed the game in 1983, rendering Foreigner, Journey, REO and other American rock radio overlords obsolete in a way Nirvana did to them in 1992. Perhaps that’s why they were ready for it. But you can hear their maximalist impact even in 1980s pop and R&B. And I would argue today, with their DNA found in Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift singles.
Something that’s become obvious in revisiting this era through this column is how much the ‘80s owed to Def Leppard. “Pyromania” in particular. And they get somewhat overlooked as a foundational influence. Bon Jovi was commercially dead until they took that “Pyromania” pixie dust and poured it all over themselves. Then had the audacity to claim some partied-out form of Springsteen authenticity. “Slippery When Wet” checks all the boxes: “Rock of Ages” stadium anthem? “Let It Rock.” “Too Late For Love” mystical ballad? “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” complete with mirrored wind sound effects. “Die Hard The Hunter” epic? “Livin’ On A Prayer.” “Photograph” pop crossover with singalong chorus? “You Give Love A Bad Name.” Ever the shameless ones, they did it again in 1988 checking off “Hysteria” boxes. “Animal” pop song, complete with false ending? “Bad Medicine.” “Love Bites” weeper with delicate guitar play over synth ambience? “Living In Sin.” And on and on… Poison, Whitesnake, White Lion and Cinderella saw what Bon Jovi was doing and said, “We’ll have some of that.” I suspect the reason Leppard can still fill stadiums in 2019 while not really pandering to anyone is people subliminally know how fresh their songs were and are. Cinderella comes out looking good, too, as Tom Keifer successfully pulled off the bluesy Stones incorporation whereas Poison and Bon Jovi could not, at least with timeless results. But it all goes back to Leppard, whose pop shadow is justifiably growing longer as the footprints of rock continue to fade away.
“We would never release that stuff. There’s nothing finished. It’s like the worst bootleg you’ve ever heard. Those tapes are locked away in my library. And that’s where they’ll stay.”
Retro Active is probably one of the best b-sides collections out there. “Desert Song,” “Ring of Fire,” covers of Ronson and Sweet. Just a fun listen.
And now you know three! And yes, music is wonderful.
Not a vampire metaphor. A “love bite” is English slang for a hickey.
Fun fact: Rick Allen only plays part of the drums on Hysteris (and Pyromania for that matter.) Lange wanted his drums to sound larger than life on these albums, so he had his engineer, the late great Mike “Bat Ears” Shipley, record samples of Allen’s snares, kicks and toms with a Fairlight. Because the bit rate was low in those days, they downtuned them to make them sound more “real,” which had the side effect of making them sound even bigger. Allen would then come in and play the hi-hats, cymbals and auxiliary percussion to the Fairlight, as those sounds were hard to program with a realistic feel. This was often the last thing completed for a Def Leppard track, the rest of the band recorded their guitar parts to a click, as Lange wanted the freedom to rearrange the drums if the song changed as it was being recorded. Tracking cymbals was a painstaking process for Allen, as he had to play precisely to the metronomic Fairlight. Hit the cymbal late, it sounds just wrong. So he’d run through a take and wait as Lange and Shipley reviewed each crash. This leads to the famous story of Allen throwing drumsticks at the control room window in boredom and frustration. But the result was incredible, a sort of cyborg approach to drum recording that retains a human feel, sounds massive and fooled nearly everyone, including Tom. Lange would use this approach for Billy Ocean, The Cars and many others. Leppard would continue to use this approach on Adrenalize and Euphoria, although remarkably, Allen reverted to an all acoustic kit for the underrated Slang album in 1996. Bonus video: Here’s Leppard’s Phil Collen and Steve Clark, trying to figure out how to tell an interviewer about Allen’s contributions during a 1987 interview. The Fairlight was, at that time, like a magic trick Leppard didn’t want widely revealed.
Bono sneaks into the chat. Whispers, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.” Quickly sneaks out again.
It will surprise you. I barely remember the track myself but was reminded of it by a previous entry on this blog.
It just dawned on me this morning. If you read the album this way, Hollyann falls in love with Amanda, convinces her that how she feels about her queerness is OK. But their small town disapproves, so they run away from home and find comfort in each other. Amanda decides to come out as a man, Hollyann is supportive, but dies tragically and suddenly. Amanda will never forget his love for Hollyann and how she saved his life.
BOSTON THIRD STAGE THEORY: “Amanda” is sung by Hollyann. “Hollyann” is Amanda’s response. “Third Stage” is a concept album about two LGTBQ kids who fall in love and run away from home. Discuss
Investigated this further, there is a real drummer on “Third Stage,” but it appears Scholz had him play an early electronic drum kit. Apparently with the settings set to paper thin. I’d love to remix “Amanda,” because the snare and kick could both use some punch.
I heard it on Appleton’s WAPL quite often back in the day. Along with just about every other non-single cut.
By this measure, “The Moon & Antarctica” is a half-terrible Modest Mouse album.
My only problem with “Amanda” is, and I can not guarantee this, but I’m pretty sure it features a drum machine, as does the rest of “Third Stage.” I’m not against the use of drum machines, Lange and Leppard perfected their use in rock music, but Scholz surprisingly fails to get a good drum sound on this album. They should be *huge* on this song when the chorus hits, but they sound paper thin and have aged the song poorly. Getting all nerdy and engineer-like, if he had pitched them down like Shipley and Lange, this album would have been a monster sonically.
Def Leppard’s “Pyromania” would like a word.
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