The late ˜70s and early ˜80s were a boom time for bands blending New Wave’s urgency and energy with the Jamaican rhythms of ska and reggae. The biggest-selling exponents of that musical merger were The Police and Men At Work, but a whole ska-rock subculture developed in England around a handful of bands working under the Two Tone banner. Two Tone was first and foremost a label, with a roster that at one time or another included The Beat, Bad Manners, The Bodysnatchers, Madness, The Selecter, and The Specials, among others, but it also evolved into a genre tag, partly due to the label’s black-and-white logo and iconography, and partly because of the groups’ commitment to actively opposing the racism that was prevalent in England at the time, through songs, benefits, and activism. The Beat (who became known in the U.S. as The English Beat due to another band’s claim on the name) were Two Tone’s poster boys, as much for their unity-boosting lyrics as for their integrated lineup, and they eventually had the biggest impact in America of any Two Tone act. (more…)
It only took Francis Ford Coppola two years to follow The Godfather with Godfather II. Even less time separated Charles Dickens’ last serialized installment of David Copperfield and his first for Bleak House. Sometimes artists are able to pick up where they left off pretty quickly, even if their previous project was one of the key works of their career. Other times, however, one has to wait a while for the follow-up to come around. The original lineup of The dB’s definitely fall into the latter camp. It’s taken thirty years for frontmen Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple”along with bassist Gene Holder and drummer Will Rigby”to finally concoct a successor to Repercussion, their second record together, but now that Falling Off The Sky is set to arrive at last, the faithful are breathing heavy sighs of relief.
All four dB’s were North Carolina boys who grew up playing together in various bands throughout the ’70s before deciding to search for the brass ring in New York in 1978. Heavily influenced by Big Star”Stamey had briefly worked with that band’s mastermind, Alex Chilton, and Holsapple had recorded with Big Star sideman Richard Rosebrough”The dB’s already had a distinct power-pop orientation when they arrived on New York’s nascent new wave scene. So were The dB’s a new wave band? “I guess so, yeah,” allows Holsapple in retrospect, “for lack of a better word. I mean, we’d been making records [in other incarnations] before there was a new wave, back when new wave was a French cinema term, so I guess we sort of fell into that. We certainly weren’t new romantics. For years we sort of rejected the power-pop moniker, just because it seems very limiting, but realistically I guess you would have to say that’s exactly what we were. At this point you can call it anything, I mainly just want people to enjoy it and hear it for what it is.”
“For me it’s the machine that works best,” says Gary Numan of the synthesizer, the instrument whose use in rock he helped to revolutionize back in the late ’70s. It’s an axe that has certainly served him well over the decades, from the synth-punk experiments of his early recordings to the sleekly designed electronic speedway of his blockbuster breakthrough, “Cars,” all the way up to his latest album, Dead Son Rising.
But Numan didn’t start out as a synthesizer whiz at all. “Originally I was a guitar player,” he recalls, “and when I was signed to Beggars Banquet we (Tubeway Army) were a guitar, bass and drums three-piece, a punk band, really. I had never played a keyboard before.” As fate would have it, a synth was laying around the studio during the recording of Numan’s first album, and he couldn’t help trying it out. “Soon after that, my parents bought an old upright [piano],” he says. “I started pretty much writing songs on piano from then on. I’ve written two songs on bass guitar in my life,” he adds. “One of those was ‘Cars.'”
But while Numan made new wave history at the end of the ’70s and the onset of the ’80s, his tenure at the top of the heap was fleeting. He confesses that his career “started to suffer somewhat in the early ’80s,” and by the ’90s his star had sputtered out. “I couldn’t give away albums, even in the UK,” he admits. “I couldn’t give away tickets to gigs. I was really, really in trouble, I had massive money problems, all sorts of personal problems at home, it was just a grim time, really…my situation was so poor that I didn’t have a record contract either. I just decided that I was really finished, and I didn’t know if I’d ever make any more albums again. So I went back to what I did before I’d ever done it for a living, and that was to write songs for the fun of it. It went back to being a hobby. And because I wasn’t thinking about career, or trying to please A&R departments, I just went back to writing songs for me, it was immediately different. I hadn’t realized it, but I think for several years before that, everything I’d been writing was desperate attempts to save the career and to try and get back on radio¦listening to advice and trying to keep people happy. That’s when I sold out, I think.”
The holiday season is supposed to appeal to all of our finer instincts as sentient earthlings ”at least that’s the idea that’s been inculcated in us practically since birth. So why is its annual arrival commonly greeted with the kind of dull-eyed existential dread otherwise reserved for tax audits, traffic court and other such frivolities? Maybe it’s because of the stress that comes along with finding just the right gifts for all the loved ones on our lists. After all, some folks are a snap”another Xbox game, Scotch bottle or sweater, and they’re set”but everyone’s holiday shopping list always contains at least one or two of the type we’ll term “The Difficult Ones.” Their tastes are micro-specific, and they usually seem to want nothing, already have everything or both. With that in mind, in the interest of sucking some of the stress out of the season, here are a few humble holiday gift suggestions for “The Difficult Ones” in your own life, conveniently organized by personality type.
The Classic Rockers
Jimi Hendrix – Winterland
Do you have a dude in your life”and in this context, “dude” couldn’t be a more appropriate designation”whose idea of extreme sports is playing air guitar to Bachman-Turner Overdrive while pedaling his exercise bike? Someone whose TV remote has somehow been programmed to never depart from the VH1 Classic channel? He may already have every classic-rock reissue, remaster and repackaging you could conceive of, but he hasn’t gotten around to this one yet”five live discs featuring Jimi Hendrix in his prime at the legendary Winterland Ballroom. Iit’ll send any card-carrying Classic Rocker into a state of six-string ecstasy.
Rock and roll has had a profound impact on the culturally history of the United States. Beginning in the 1950s with artists like Elvis Presley, rock music has always been a symbol for youthful rebellion. From the psychedelic rock of the ’60s, to glam rock in the ’70s, to hair metal in the ’80s, to grunge in the ’90s, each new generation of kids latches on to a new variation that represents their time and experiences. And while all the various sub-genres of rock have their differences, they all share a few basic similarities: loud guitars, powerful drum beats, booming bass and in-your-face riffs. While it may seem like rock has taken a backseat in the music mainstream to pop and country, there are still successful bands out there keeping the rock and roll tradition alive. One of those bands is Cage the Elephant, who also happen to be one of OurStage’s biggest success stories. This week’s edition of Vs. matches them up against another great up-and-coming rock band on OurStage that you may not know about yet, The Bolts.
What makes the Bolts similar to Cage the Elephant is that they both write hard rock songs with a pop sensibility. Like Cage the Elephant, The Bolts have a penchant for writing hard yet melodic riffs that are extremely catchy. One listen to their song “Walk Away” makes this perfectly obvious. The song opens with a hard biting guitar riff that blasts you in the face on your first listen, but by the end of the song you’ll be humming it back to yourself. It really is that catchy. The Bolts trade off vocal duties between four out of the five members of the band, which allows for versatility as well as great vocal harmonizations, which you can hear on the chorus of “Walk Away.” While Cage the Elephant’s lead singer is known for his distinct, nasally voice, the singers in the Bolts have smoother voices with greater range. They also show off their instrumental skill with a roaring guitar solo about halfway through the song.
In this week’s edition of Vs. we’ll be taking a look at Triggers and putting them up agains indie poppers The Hush Sound. Triggers hail from Pittsburgh, but have recently relocated to Los Angeles and have been causing a buzz with big shows at the Viper Room and the Hard Rock Cafe. Like The Hush Sound, Triggers make catchy and melodic pop music with an indie rock flavor. Triggers use crunchy, distorted guitars and soulful piano lines to create a driving and upbeat sound that is just simply fun to listen to. Their track “18 FPS” is a perfect example of their fun and catchy brand of indie pop. Piano chords and lead electric guitar lines propel the song forward, while Adam Rousseau’s smooth voice provides a vocal melody that will be stuck in your head for days.
“18 FPS” also shows another aspect of what sets Triggers apart from The Hush Sound; horn arrangements. The use of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones adds a whole different dimension to the band’s sound. On “18 FPS,” the horns echo the vocal melody as well as provide harmonizations during the chorus and part of the verses. The results make the song sound almost like swing, and it’s sure to get feet moving on the dance floor. In “She Had Me At Takeoff,” the horns are utilized perfectly for the chorus of the song. Using accented off beats, the horns create the perfect countermelody to the on-the-beat vocal melody.
This track also shows how Triggers use elements of new wave and post-punk in their music. “She Had Me At Takeoff” features a strong and distorted electric guitar melody, with a mixture of normal and falsetto vocals. The sound has definite ties to bands like The Cars and XTC, but with a much more modern pop edge. The new wave influence continues on “Ready Or Not,” but they mix it up by using an electric keyboard instead of a piano, and the keyboard gets the spotlight in this song. The fast keyboard melody and frantic drumming keep the song going at a quick pace during the intro, but the song slows down for the verse and the vocalists take the spotlight. Adam Rousseau and Brett Zoric trade lines during the verse, which leads to the climactic chorus. It really cannot be said enough how catchy these songs are. One or two listens and you will have every hook and melody already memorized. Triggers blend the modern and vintage to create a sound all their own.
Check out Triggers’ debut album Smoke Show, out now on Anomaly Records!
Even if you have only a passing knowledge of ˜80s new wave, it’s likely that Thomas Dolby has a place in your heart for lending some class”not to mention the occasional touch of funk”to the burgeoning synth-pop movement with such hits as Hyperactive, Europa and the Pirate Twins, and of course, the ultimate ode to love in a lab coat, She Blinded Me With Science. But if your knowledge of Dolby’s career drops off after the ˜80s, it’s not because you’re uninformed. In fact, Dolby spent much of the ˜90s and ˜00s outside of the music biz, pursuing other electronic interests that we’ll get to presently. But now, he’s set to release his first album of new material, and we talked with him about that record, A Map of the Floating City, as well as his early output, and got the straight story on Dolby’s missing years too.
Back in the ˜70s, the electro-pop pioneer was actually a teenage prog fan, worshipping at the altar of arty epics and tricky time signatures. I think many punks were teenage prog rockers, says Dolby. I still remember the outrage that prog rockers felt when punk first came on the scene. When I was fifteen I was into Genesis and Yes and Little Feat and Steely Dan. [Pogues frontman] Shane McGowan, who I was at school with, came in one day and said ‘Well, I think The Beatles and the Stones is all shit,’ and I remember my sense of outrage. I said, ‘Well, Shane, what should we be listening to?’ And he said ‘Johnny Thunders, MC5, Iggy Pop.’ And we’d never heard of any of these people. Of course within a few months we’d all spiked our hair and torn our trousers, and were all down at the 100 club listening to Siouxsie & The Banshees or The Clash.”
Even after trading his bellbottoms for leather pants, though, Dolby still gravitated naturally towards the brainier end of the British new wave, idolizing XTC to an obsessive degree. I used to follow them around in the early punk days, he admits. XTC came along and they had the energy of punk, but they had a musical intelligence to go along with it, so obviously that was a revelation to me. I knew their songs inside out, and I remember being in front of the stage, in front of Barry Andrews, their keyboard player, hoping that he would get hit by a tram or something, and they’d have to go ˜Is there anyone in the house that knows our keyboard parts?’ and I could leap up on stage.
Before that opportunity arose, though, Dolby began making his own way in the music world, working with other artists at first, from Bruce Wooley & The Camera Club to Lene Lovich. He released his first single in 1981, and his 1982 debut album, The Golden Age of Wireless, made him a success straight out of the gate. The sophistication of Dolby’s songwriting put him at the forefront of artists working with the new musical toolkit the ˜80s brought along, and even today he’s often associated exclusively with an era when he recalls providing an alternative to a lot of hair bands and a lot of AOR, noting The irony of it is that if you listen to my first album¦a lot of the songs are a three-piece band with additional keyboards. I was a big fan of early Talking Heads, and a couple of songs have that kind of vibe to them.
Nevertheless, he still embraces his early recordings. I do feel very strongly connected to them. There’s very little that I would choose to redo or delete. I guess, like anyone else in the ˜80s, I fell prey to some trends and sounds of the moment. Some were of my own making, some were just the flavor du jour, but overall I think my early stuff still stands up fairly well because of the substance behind the songwriting. There are some artists that transcend the era that they’re from; I think of anyone from Steely Dan to Kraftwerk to Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell, all of whom have influenced me very strongly. You wouldn’t catch any of them going out on a ˜70s revival tour¦the contribution they made spanned a wider spectrum than that.
However, Dolby found himself sufficiently dissatisfied with the music industry in the ˜90s to pursue a different course. I thought, ˜I’ll take a little sabbatical and go to Silicon Valley and explore my interest in technology,’ he recalls. Eventually, he started his own company and created a revolutionary ringtone technology that made a huge splash in the cell phone world, and he created soundtrack music for video games. Dolby found himself a success once more, but in an entirely new context. He could never resist the pull of songwriting for long, though, and the seeds of his upcoming album, A Map Of The Floating City, began to bear fruit. I had some songs that I’d been unable to escape from, he remembers. I needed to get those done, and once I started, I wrote brand new songs. Much of the recording process took place in Dolby’s home studio, built inside a lifeboat from the 1930s, which he says looks out over the North Sea and is powered by the wind and the sun.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the songs he recorded in this idyllic setting turned out to be much more acoustic-oriented and balladic than the tunes Dolby is most famous for. The songs from the new album are very organic, he agrees, adding, I’m very influenced by my environment. The inclusion of Dire Straits axeman Mark Knopfler on the track 17 Hills helps lend a rootsy touch as well. I just felt that his style would be a very good complement for the song, explains Dolby. He’s a student of American roots music¦I love his lyrical guitar style.
So, with all this earthiness going on, does Dolby still have a soft spot in his heart for the technology of old? Quite frankly, he confesses, a $1.99 iPhone app with a picture of a Mellotron, that sounds pretty close to the real thing, is to me a huge improvement on something that goes out of tune and takes three guys to carry it. But I know purists would probably be outraged to hear me say that. Nevertheless, he can envision a future where even today’s cutting-edge digital gear is fetishized as vintage equipment. I think fetishism for the past will always exist, he speculates, but maybe the future will be [about] jacking into the matrix and imagining ourselves in front of our 64k Mac, playing with those old tools. Things go full circle, so it’s hard to know where we’ll end up.
For a guy like Joe Jackson, who’s got a trail of great songs that go all the way back to the late ’70s, it must be tough to strike a balance in his shows between trotting out the tunes his fans adore and demand, and keeping things fresh for himself. Nevertheless, he’s an artist who loves the experience of laying down his tunes in front of an audience. In fact, he’s popped out a number of live records over the years, starting in the ’80s with Live 1980/86, and running up to his latest release, the generically titled Live Music. “I’ve done a few live records, because I’ve always loved playing live,” Jackson told us, “and I’ve always felt like that’s the best part of what I do.”
Jackson’s restless muse and his passion for performance have led him to reinvent his catalog onstage from the beginning. As early as the aforementioned ’80s live album, he was recasting his classic tunes in radically rearranged formats, delivering the new wave/power-pop hit “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” as an a cappella doo wop tune, and finding ways to re-imagine songs originally recorded by a guitar/bass/drums lineup for a band with two keyboardists and no guitarist. He manages a similar feat on Live Music, where he pumps out cuts from all across his career in piano-trio mode. “In some cases they never had guitar in the first place,” Jackson says. “People often forget that Night and Day had no guitars on it.” In fact, Live Music boasts a number of tunes from that 1982 album, Jackson’s biggest ever, including “Steppin’ Out,” “Slow Song,” “Another World,” “Cancer” and “Chinatown.”
Backing Jackson up on Live Music are the bassist and drummer from the original Joe Jackson Band, Graham Maby and Dave Houghton, with whom he seems to have found a brand new groove. “We’ve been doing this together for a few years now and it’s been great,” Jackson says. “For one thing, we’re old friends, and that’s always nice.” But beyond the bonhomie, Jackson enjoys interacting with Maby and Houghton in a trio format. “I feel like the trio is stripping it down to the absolute bare minimum and then seeing what you can do with it. It’s pretty amazing what you can do if you use your imagination. It can sound big, it can sound really varied.”
Besides redefining his old songs with the current live lineup, Jackson mixes things up by including a few carefully chosen cover tunes on Live Music. Probably the only artist whose songs have been covered by both Anthrax (“Got the Time”) and Tori Amos (“Real Men”), Jackson picks his own outside material with an ear for adventure. David Bowie‘s “Scary Monsters,” The Beatles‘ “Girl” and Ian Dury‘s “Inbetweenies” all get Jacksonized. “We actually do a lot of covers,” says Jackson. “I think it has to be something that I can get comfortable with vocally, and that I feel I can sing in my own way. But it also needs to be something where I can see a different way of doing it, because I don’t see the point in trying to imitate the original. I’m trying to make them as different as possible.”
In that spirit, Jackson has also got another project in the works, a tribute to the compositions of Duke Ellington. He’s been performing his own version of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” for some time, but this recording will find him interpreting a whole host of Ellington tunes in typically eclectic fashion, aided by everybody from guitar hero Steve Vai to The Roots. “It’s starting to come together finally, after years of thinking about it and planning it. I’ve done so much touring over the last few years that I really haven’t had much time to work on anything else. I just spent a week in Amsterdam working with a [Brazilian] band called Zuco 103”they’re so good. We collaborated on two tracks. I’m gonna be in New York again picking it up with Amir from The Roots. We’ll have a good chunk of it done by June. I don’t know if it’ll be out this year, it may not be until next year.”
In the meantime, Live Music will serve to remind listeners that the man who spent the last three decades recording everything from big-band swing to orchestral suites never tires of offering up new sides of his musical personality. “We’ve done so much touring the last few years,” Jackson says, “we’ve done so many great shows”it needed to be captured. I’m really happy that it’s documented.” Of course, that’s no guarantee that by the next time Jackson toddles into your town, some of these tunes won’t have been drastically reinvented once more.
Look, this is 2011 after all”you’d think it would be safe to assume that every ’80s band with an inclination to reunite would have done so by now. After all, over the last year we’ve had brand new albums from such happily reconvened ’80s icons as Duran Duran, Devo, OMD and Modern English, to name just a few, and that’s not even counting the number of New Wave era bands currently out there on the oldies trail (Missing Persons, anyone?). For the most part, the major acts of the ’80s who remain dormant are either dead, alienated from each other or simply dead-set against revisiting old glories. But then along come The Cars to throw a monkey wrench into our carefully crafted presumptions.
For those who don’t recall, the Bostonians who brought the skinny-tie sound to the masses called it quits after 1987’s Door To Door, and the closest they came to a reunion was in 2005, when founding Cars guitarist Elliott Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes worked briefly with Todd Rundgren under the name The New Cars. Frontman Ric Ocasek and drummer David Robinson were seemingly uninterested in getting back behind the wheel at the time, and singer/bassist Ben Orr had unfortunately passed away in 2000. Still, this short-lived semi-revival was all the band’s fans had to hang onto…until now.
Last July, seemingly out of nowhere, Cars aficionados visiting the band’s Facebook fan page suddenly had their hopes raised for the first time, by a photo posted without comment or explanation, featuring all four surviving Cars playing together in a rehearsal space. Before long, the expectations that ran rampant were soon stoked by the posting of tantalizing clips from new Cars songs (as opposed to New Cars songs) “Blue Tip,” “Free,” and “Sad Song,” each of which sounded remarkably like, well, The Cars. And now, the final veil of mystery has been pulled away, and the full details of the Cars reunion have been revealed. Ocasek, Easton, Hawkes and Robinson will give the world the first Cars album in 24 years on May 10th, when they release Move Like This on Concord Records.
Instead of bringing a stranger into the fold to replace the late Orr, Hawkes will expand his duties to covering the band’s bass lines. Beyond that, all things relating to Move Like This seem to be in classic Cars mode, from Ocasek’s trademark chunka-chunka rhythm guitar to Hawkes’ video-game-soundtrack synth lines. While it hasn’t been officially confirmed so far, the producer is widely reported to be Jacknife Lee, the Irishman who has helped new artists bring an ‘8os sensibility to their sound (Bloc Party, Editors) as well as aiding ’80s bands in making the shift to the 21st century (R.E.M., U2). There’s been no word so far about the boys taking their reunion to the stage, but come the summer, after the new songs have had a couple of months to work their way into the world’s ears, the idea of a Cars tour is sure to start looking good to all concerned. Until then, we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed and our wraparound shades firmly secured in anticipation.
Some bad things about the ˜80s: Perms, mullets, permed mullets and the phrase totally tubular.
Some great things about the ˜80s: Talking Heads, The Cars and The Cure.
If you disagree with these sentiments, that’s cool (er, tubular). To each his own. But you should probably bypass the music of Action Painters. The Brooklyn quartet was forged in the embers of new wave, and have an unequivocal love for all its glitter and pop.
With songs like Absolutely Clear and Sooner or Later, Action Painters dare you to dance “ rock steady beats, joyful, frenetic melodies and a dollop of retro soul glow make an irresistibly sexy combination. You’ll pick up whiffs of the Violent Femmes snarl, and echoes of shimmering Cure guitars but Action Painters aren’t about being derivative. Call them mod wave, call them jangle synth soul pop, the band combines textures and tones to make something wholly unique and totally rad. Like acid hitting denim.