Round the Dial
Wednesday 27 November @ 09:42:49
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “A lot of the industries now are in a vicious cycle: in order to sell their goods to the youth market, which accounts for the major market, that same market that buys most of the records, you have a weird situation where in effect, record companies are helping to disseminate the information which will cause the kids to wake up and eventually destroy what they stand for, and they can’t help it.”
--Frank Zappa, 1967
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Destroyer”
It’s no secret, even to the rapidly vapifying youth of today’s world, that the ‘60s and early ‘70s were rock n’ roll’s premier era for earth-shattering, chart-busting, foundation-shaking political and social anthems. Who could deny the power of Buffalo Springfield’s in-the-moment tribute to Kent State students who were shot by U.S. R.O.T.C. troops while exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate against the horrors of the Vietnam War, “For What It’s Worth”: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’ / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drummin’ / Four dead in Ohio...”
Or how about the gritty, death-march groove of Barry McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction”: “Look at all the hate / There is in Red China / Then look around, at Selma, Alabama...you don’t believe / We’re on the eve of destruction...” Or 90% of Bob Dylan’s Sixties catalog? Look, nobody’s expecting the Emp-Tee-Vee kiddies of today—the TRL zombies, the Em-heads, the gutteral-groaners, and the Brittany clones—to suddenly rise up and write, s ing, and play songs that accurately reflect the horrific era we’re about to take a flying leap into. It’s hard enough to concentrate on the latest codes to Death %@!#$& 2 on Swaga Genericus Game Cube or how P. Diddy might redecorate your crib if you won that contest on VH-1 without having to (gasp!) READ a newspaper and try to understand just where your squirrelly little generation is headed in the next twenty years.
So I understand, when I hear the latest pap, where they’re comin’ from. Their lives are full of whatever it is that thrills them, their parents could give a fat rat’s ass if their children grow up knowing that, at least at one point in their lives, they actually had the RIGHT to speak up against evil, to lay down a song or write a poem or paint a picture that portrays the TRUTH—or at least how they perceive it. But I’m old enough to remember the ‘80s, and we weren’t exactly the deepest generation to come out of the ole American womb, either. We had horrifying, fire-breathing, fascist politicians from hell running the country (many of whom are now comfortably ensconced in Washington once again), fashions that even the most destitute Third-World beggar wouldn’t deign to don, values just a notch above Caligula’s, and some of the worst music to come down the pike since Pat Boone’s heyday in the ’50s.
BUT! Compared to the soulless, mindless, spineless drivel dripping its foulness all over the Top 40 charts these days, the ‘80s artists were positively REBELLIOUS!! (Let’s clarify right here and now that we’re not talking about the underground, indie, or post-punk bands who were righteously skewering the Reagan/Bush/Thatcher Axis Of Evil—we’re talkin’ tunes that actually had considerable airplay and influenced millions of people in the moment.) I did a little research the other day, and found more politically-conscious, socially-relevant, PATRIOTIC (meaning, questioning the answers, standing up for truth and justice, and not towing any hyped-up party lines), and mentally-stimulating lyrics buried in some of the lamest, over-produced pop drivel to ever hit the ’waves. Sure, the music sucked, but the messages were still far more subversive, paranoid, and AWARE than anything you’ll hear bloating across the FM dial in the ‘Oughts.
Here’s a small sampler of those songs, what they meant, and why they were important. Let me just stipulate that I never want to hear another We Are The World or Band Aid again, I just think it’s important to note, as we embark upon the dark journey that will be the next decade, that even when the times are vapid and empty, even when the censors are hard to port, even when Big Brother is at his biggest, it’s still possible to send out a little message of hope, truth, and warning. Whether this generation will take up that challenge and subvert the system—bite the hand that feeds them—remains to be seen. All I can say is, I’d be happy as %@!#$& to see it happen, and to see the Zappa quote I used this week (see above) actually come to mean something once again.
CHART-MAKING SONGS OF FEAR, PARANOIA, AND WARNING FROM THE 1980s:
Mike & The Mechanics’ “Silent Running,” Asia’s “Sole Survivor,” The Fixx’s “Stand Or Fall,” Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2),” Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” AC/DC’s “Back In Black”: All tunes that showed us that the artists were aware we were facing the potential end of the world as we knew it...what will the new ones be? Let’s not pretend for a minute that Steve Earle’s “John Walker Blues”—or even Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots (American Skin)”—will ever make the charts. The questions here are, do today’s artists, even the ones who’ve already made more money than a thousand people could spend in one lifetime, have the cojones to SPEAK UP? I mean the ones who actually have brains and use them—there have to be a FEW, at least, don’t you think? Although this is the generation that actually LIKES a television show called BIG BROTHER...
And, more importantly, does the “entertainment machine” have the guts anymore to allow artists to release songs that may not agree with the general national consensus, especially that of the Prez and his cronies? I’m not overly hopeful. I mean, Asia sucked, but at least they had the chutzpah to imagine a world without order—do Toby “Let’s Talk About Me” Keith, Christina, or Avril? Are any of today’s bloated, overpaid artists going to come together for a Sun City, We Are The World, Band-Aid, or Do They Know It’s Christmas? Hmmm...I’m bettin’ we’re in for more “Freedom Rallies” than we’ve seen in this country since the good ole days of Joe McCarthy. As a matter of fact, I think I saw his ghost on the corner of 10th and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis just the other day...
“Melt With You” by Modern English, Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Out Of Work,” David Bowie & Queen’s “Under Pressure,” Jackson Browne’s “For America.” If you didn’t feel the angst, terror, and underlying fear in those tracks, you were gettin’ better blow than most of America-in which case, the songs were probably about YOU and what you were doing to America. In the last months of 1979, Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police” rode the charts for five solid weeks. Totally paranoid, man. The real Big Brother’s theme song. The Clash’s two biggies (“Should I Stay” and “Rock The Casbah”) made it to the charts, but none of their more serious, politically-motivated music ever did. Of course, they were English, and who wanted anything more than FUN from Europe? Hell, even Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” bled more pure paranoia than anything currently mucking up the airwaves.
Shock-rocker Alice Cooper kicked off the ‘80s with “Clones (We’re All)” and ended them with “Poison.” Not a bad last gasp from a guy who spends all his time on the golf course with Hootie and Gerald Ford these days. Former hippie/protest/rock stars CSN commented on themselves and their generation with “Wasted On The Way” in 1982. A far cry from “Teach Your Children,” but at least they were honest. Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” was so apocalyptic that author Stephen King included it in the movie version of his end-of-the-world opus “The Stand.” Culture Club’s “Church Of The Poison Mind” perfectly encapsulated the near-Roman decadence the U.S was enmeshed in—more spot-on cultural commentary from our pals across the pond. But Jesus, look what garbage we were spewing-Charlie Daniels contradicted himself within two years by releasing the uber-patriotic “In America” in 1980 and the anti-government rant “Still In Saigon” in 1982.
Things got a little clearer with David And David’s “Welcome To The Boomtown,” and Chris DeBurgh’s “Don’t Pay The Ferryman,” and then Def Leppard came right out and said it in 1988 with “Armageddon It.” Yeah, we are. Devo broke through on the charts in 1980 with “Whip It,” and though they had plenty to say about the state of the world, they never charted again. Incidentally, both Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale had been students at Kent State when the fatal student shootings took place.
Can you even begin to imagine your average radio listener getting excited about Neil Diamond’s come-on-in-the-door’s-open tune, “America” in these times of airport paranoia and border guard blues? Wellsir, people DUG THE %@!#$& OUT OF IT in the ‘80s. The same sonsabitches who are clamoring for MonkeyBush to line our borders with the military were WELCOMING WITH OPEN ARMS some of the world’s most tyrannical leaders, religious zealots, and hate-mongering dogs of war into America as soul-sucking trade-offs for our ever-expanding quest for expansionism. It’s a little too late to stick your finger in the dike now, G.W. Welcome to HOW THE WEST WAS LOST, buddy. Speaking of lost, the ‘80s also brought us the gloomy “Life In A Northern Town,” by the Dream Academy, which, though written with England’s rotting economy in mind, totally captured the spirit of defeat running through blue collar cities like Detroit and Chicago at the time. Who’s gonna write another one like that for today’s jobless and downtrodden? And with those great timpani rolls...can’t be beat.
In late ’79, Bob Dylan charted one last time with “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Unfortunately, though Bobby had Jebus in mind, the rest of America apparently took it to mean you “Gotta Serve Yourself.” The Eurythmics’ “Here Comes The Rain Again,” in 1984 and “Would I Lie To You” in 1985 were almost aural postcards to the Reagan administration. Harold Faltermeyer evoked horrific images with his doot-doot instrumental, “Theme From Axel F” in 1985, the gleefully subversive anti-war rant, “Born In The U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen, went to #9, also in 1985—the Ray-Gun administration didn’t “get it,” and promptly adopted it as a party theme song. Hilarious.
More great ‘80s radio subversion, all chart-makers: Billy Joel’s “Pressure” and “Allentown,” about the cost of money-grubbing and the horrors of economic downturns, respectively. Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” and “War,” both with excellent videos portraying the main players on the ‘80s political stage, were serious thought-provokers. Genesis’ “Land Of Confusion” video portraying a nightmarish Reagan/bomb nightmare, was probably the ‘80s finest anti-government moment, at least that duh masses were in on. John Lennon’s “Nobody Told Me,” #5 in 1984, said more in three minutes than any artists in the mainstream have in the first three years of this decade, century, millennium—and he’d been dead for four years when the song came out! Bryan Adams’ “In The Heat Of The Night,” out in 1987, was another edgy slice of paranoia—and one you might want to remember as our “Homeland Security” gets tighter: “In the heat of the night / They’ll be coming around / They’ll be looking for answers / They’ll be chasing you down...”
Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” #2 in 1984, spoke to the sick sense of foreboding we all were feeling—funny how it’s even more relevant now, huh? Paul Hardcastle’s “19,” (blistering commentary on the Vietnam War) went to #15 in 1985, ELO’s “Calling America,” (a WAKE-UP call) hit #18 in 1986. Guns N’ Roses gave us “Welcome To The Jungle” in 1988, following up on the promise of Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” which went to #8 in 1987. Bowie pointed out that “This Is Not America” (w/The Pat Metheny Group) in 1985, giving life to John Cougar Mellonhead’s “R-O-C-K In The USA” and “Authority Song,” both out in 1984.
EVEN MORE WORD-UP ‘80s CHART-MAKERS:
1.) The Red Rockers’ “China”
2.) Men At Work’s “Who Can It Be Now”
3.) The Fixx’s “Are We Ourselves”
4.) Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers”
5.) Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning”
6.) Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach”
7.) Alan Parsons’ “Eye In The Sky”
8.) Styx’s “Mr. Roboto”
9.) Nena’s “99 Luftballons”
10.) The Rolling Stones’ “Undercover Of The Night”
I know I’m only touching the tip of the proverbial iceberg here, but I thought it was important to note that people pulled off anti-populist ranting in the mainstream even through the Dark Years of the ‘80s, and that they should be doing it again—if anyone out there has any songs, info, or input they’d like to add to this little house o’ cards, feel free to write in, and I’ll put another column on the subject together with your responses. Until next time, WRITE A SUBVERSIVE HIT SONG, and make yer own damn news.
If you have local news/gigs/events/input you’d like to share with this column, or you’d just like to complain that your head’s grown too big for last year’s stocking cap, send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com.