When The Orchids were in Bloom

The ORchids

Lightning doesn’t usually strike twice. So it’s no surprise that when rock impresario Kim Fowley tried to replicate the success of his all-girl band The Runaways with another all-girl ensemble, the results fizzled instead of sizzled.

 

That’s a shame because the group in question, The Orchids, released a pretty good album in 1980. The self-titled release eschews The Runaways overdrive sound in favor of girl-group melodicism and snappy new wave tempos. Producer Fowley (who also takes credit as “director”) wrote or co-wrote almost all the songs on this LP, and while there are no flashes of brilliance, it’s consistently listenable and enjoyable.

 

Lead vocalist Jan King (not the author of the same name!) shows a lot of range, coasting through the ballads, rockers and mid-tempo numbers with ease.

A few years after The Orchids came and went, several all-women bands like The Go-Go's and The Bangles reaped lots of commercial success with similar sounds.

 

The Orchids LP doesn’t touch the best work of either of those bands, but is definitely worth hearing, especially if you’re a fan of obscure new wave acts.

 

The Orchids was released on MCA Records as MCA-3235 and is unavailable on CD.

 

James Spader: Not Just a Singer, But A Song Stylist

Tuff Turf

Actor James Spader is well known – beloved even – for the deliciously wicked bad guy roles he played in such movies as “Pretty in Pink,” “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” and “Less Than Zero.” On the small screen, he’s earned Emmy Awards for his work on “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.”

 

But it’s not Mr. Spader’s memorable roles as a Yuppie-with-a-heart-of-tin that concerns us here. It’s James’ singing career.

 

“Singing career,” I can hear you all saying “Why, I didn’t know James Spader was a vocalist!”

 

Well, Jimmy Spader (as he was originally known) probably doesn’t talk about that part of his oeuvre when he’s making the rounds on “Carson Daly” or “Ellen.” But thanks to cable television, my first encounter with Spader was as an actor who takes a vocal turn in a trashy 1985 teen flick called “Tuff Turf” (which HBO used to show constantly). And thanks to this cool Web site, we can all download an MP3 of the song he sings in that movie right now! (According to the consensus on several Web sites, that’s really Spader singing.)

 

How does he do? Not bad, actually. His vocal may be somewhat pedestrian, but he doesn’t embarrass himself. Heck, with some more practice, he might have made it as a lounge singer – the type my old Italian relatives used to love and praise with what was their ultimate compliment for any vocalist: “He’s not just a singer – he’s a song styulist.”

 

The Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award Spader would receive for “Sex, Lies…” was a long four years away when Spader played the role of Morgan Hiller in this “Afterschool Special”-like teen drama. Spader’s character is an upper class white high schooler forced to move to the wrong side of the proverbial when his family hits financial rock bottom (so much for the 1980s being the “boom years!”).

 

He encounters a bunch of really mean guys, all of whom are mysteriously dressed like the tough street characters in Michael Jackson videos from a few years back. He falls in love with the gang’s girl of the gang, who is named Frankie (perhaps as a tribute to the tragic heroine from the “Frankie and Johnny” folk song).

 

When one of the bad guys catches Spader messing with Frankie he warns Spader “Keep away from Frankie. She’s my property.” But like a really obsessed graffiti artist (or a deadbeat renter), Spader’s character simply cannot recognize the value of property. So he takes Frankie to some swank party, plops hisself down at a grand piano and croons a Billy Joel-esque ballad called “We Walk the Night ” (or "I Walk the Night" sometimes).

 

I feel your face

I hear your eyes

I know the nights that you cried, but still we survive

I walk the niiiiight…

 

For whatever reason, Spader has never reprised “We Walk the Night” on any of his many talk show appearances. But you can check him out singing it in the movie here.

Alisha: The Original ’80s Teen Queen

Alisha

When it comes to female teen-pop singers in the 1980s, Debbie Gibson and Tiffany are the names most people know.

 

But in 1984 — two years before either those two teen queens even released a song —  a 15-year-old New York-based singer named Alisha was burning up the dance charts with a tune called “All Night Passion.”

 

The problem was that the dance charts were pretty much all Alisha burned up. “All Night Passion,” which boasted a sultry medium tempo and fervent vocal, hit Number Three on Billboard’s dance chart, but it only got as high as Number 103 on the Hot 100 (which means it just hit Billboard’s “Bubbling Under” chart).

 

Maybe the tune was arranged in too much of a “freestyle” dance style for mass consumption. Or maybe the arbiters of pop taste felt the chorus of “All night passion gets me through the day” was too risqué for a 15-year-old to be singing. Whatever the case, it unfortunately set the tone of the career of Alisha Itkin, who would have lots of dance chart success, but would never have a pop single rise higher than Number 54.

 

Of course, the teen music scene that exploded in the late 1990s didn’t exist in the early 1980s. Even in the mid-1980s the music of Debbie Gibson and Tiffany was regularly derided in the mainstream press (OK, so their music wasn’t “Pet Sounds,” but it wasn’t half bad either). In the 1980s, music coverage was still all about what the Baby Boomers were listening to, and teen music wasn’t given serious press attention until the Baby Boomers’ kids started listening to it a generation later.

 

These facts at least partially explain why Alisha’s best single, the brilliant Madonna knock-off “Baby Talk,” only rose to Number 68 in late 1985. Why listen to fun teen sounds when you have, like, Huey Lewis and Phil Collins?

And make no mistake, Alisha’s first album was designed for total teen appeal.

 

The cover featured the singer in a very “teenage girl” pose – perched on her bed with telephone in band. More an extended EP than an LP, it showcases the production techniques of Mark Berry, which then sounded futuristic, but now probably sound retro to anyone under 40.

 

Alisha released a second LP and got a song on the soundtrack of the romantic comedy “Mannequin,” which featured Kim Cattrall in her pre-“Sex and the City” days. As the decade turned, her cover of Fire on Blonde’s “Bounce Back” became her biggest hit of all, rising to Number 54 on the pop charts. It also earned her a place on countless dance compilations (and endless spins on the USA Network’s “Dance Party U.S.A.” teen dance show).

 

You can find out more about Alisha at her MySpace page. Her first LP is available at Amazon and her “Baby Talk” video can be seen at complete with its solly mock-dramatic spoken introduction at YouTube.com.

The beauty of ‘Teen Love’

No Trend - Teen Love

It starts off innocently enough. A simmering bass line commences, followed by a mid-tempo drum beat and some leads that could almost have come from a Byrds record. But as soon as the lead singer Jeff Mentges begins to talk – and not sing – over the din, you known you’re in for something way different.

 

The record is “Teen Love” by the Maryland hardcore band No Trend, which achieved a degree of cult popularity in the early 1980s. Released in the heyday of MTV ascension, “Teen Love” spit in the face of mass media-induced conformity with its deadpan dissection of youth culture.

 

“They met during social interaction in Algebra class,” the song begins. “She was expressionless at first, but then smiled to indicate submission. He rearranged his facial features to appear friendly.”

 

This is the tone Mentges takes and it’s both hilarious and a bit disconcerting. The song goes on to skewer just about every facet of teen culture then wraps up with a gruesome ending right of all those “teen tragedy” song from the early 1960s.

 

“Teen Love” is hardcore in attitude more than sound (except for the hyped-up middle section). The song was the highlight of the band’s debut release, a four-song EP, released in 1983 on the band’s own label. The EP’s other three songs are pretty decent hardcore rave-ups, so it’s worth tracking down on vinyl. No Trend went on to record until 1988, eventually moving to Touch & Go Records.

 

“Teen Love” was no doubt more popular in my neck of the woods because there area I lived as a teen was two towns down from where No Trend was from – Ashton, Md. – and the song got a lot of play on the local alternative radio station. At the time Ashton was a tiny, rural area (it’s since been built up), and I remember being surprised the band wasn’t from L.A. or D.C. (the two hardcore hubs of the early 1980s).

 

The only other thing I should mention is that my then-girlfriend found this song, like, totally offensive and really hated the ending. She used to threaten to leave whenever I would break out the EP. So there you have it: “Teen Love” almost ruined my teen love. What better recommendation could you want?

 

No Trend’s “Teen Love” can be found on Teen Beat Records’ “Teen Love: The Early Years.” Hear it on YouTube.