Hilly Michaels’ Snappy New Wave Bubblegum

Hilly MichaelsIn early 1980, all must have seemed right in the world of Hilly Michaels.

 

The New York-based session drummer had a major label record deal with Warner Brothers Records, a top-flight producer in Roy Thomas Baker, and bunch of favorable press coverage about his hot debut album “Calling All Girls.” Best of all, though, was the album itself, which was an effort that actually lived up to its hype and delivered the kind of hook-filled pop songs that other artists could only dream about writing.

 

But one thing went wrong one the way to bubblegum bliss for the curly-topped drummer-turned-singer. Nobody was going into the record stores to buy the dang album. A few years earlier, Nigel Olsson (“Dancing Shoes”) had successfully made the transition from drummer to singer. So why not Hilly?

 

There’s probably no single, big reason. Just lots of little ones. The album was released during a period of post-Knack new wave backlash (which would end, but not until 1983). Then there were Michaels’ songs: They may have been a bit too quirky and ironic for the American pop scene then. It would take MTV to bring quirkiness back into pop music a few years later. Ironically, Michaels released a video for the title track which was a vivid cartoon scenario that would have probably caught on had it been released a few years later, when bands like A-Ha were expanding the boundaries of music videos.

 

Either way, the LP was terrific then and holds up now. It’s filled with jangly, electronic power pop that had critics – and Michaels himself – calling it “fun,” “lightweight,” and “bubblegum.” Well, on the surface, maybe. But like a lot of great bubblegum, the tunes have a neurotic edge that plays off the upbeat music and makes them compelling.

 

Take the title track. It’s a fast-paced, synth-driven shout-out to women around that world that seems at first blush like an update of Eugene Church’s “Pretty Girls Everywhere.” But lend an ear to the lyrics and they reveal Michaels as an “unhappy” bachelor with all the time and money in the world and no one to spend it on (kind of like the movie “Arthur”).

 

Other songs also mix melody ’n’ melancholy. “Teenage Days” sure is funny in its depiction of skipping school assemblies, but Michaels reveals his nostalgic bent with the line “all good things must come to an end.” Didn’t Allen Ginsberg call nostalgia a form of depression? In “Shake It and Dance,” Michaels’ girlfriend is too busy shaing her booty to visit lovers’ lane with the poor dude. “Something on Your Mind” (featured in the film “Caddyshack”), finds Michaels pleading with his lover to find out why she’s upset as an oddball, operatic backup chorus trills along.

 

What makes this music really engaging is the dissonance between lyrics such as these and the hyped up arrangements, which could be described as the Cars on speed (Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes even puts in an appearance). A very motley cast of musicians plays on the album, including Liza Minelli, her stepsister Lorna Luft, actor-singer Ellen Foley, “Saturday Night Live” guitarist G.E. Smith and rocker-turned-disco-dude Dan Hartman (who Michael had once played drums for). Producer Baker makes the album snap, crackle and pop with his usual bag of tricks: Compressed drums, massed backing vocals, and lots of high and low frequencies, but little midrange.

 

In 1981, just as “Calling All Girls” was filling the cut-out bins, Michaels released a follow-up called “Lumia.” There was so little distribution of this LP that I’ve never even seen it (if someone has it, let me know!). After that, Michaels disappeared back to where ever session musicians go.

 

Hilly Michael’s two LPs are both out of print, but “Calling All Girls” can be easily found at used record shops.

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.

When Nicole Kidman did the ‘Bop’

Pat Wilson

Sometime in early 1984, an obscure Australian singer named Pat Wilson released a new wavish dance song called “Bop Girl.”

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard it. Few people did. The single never even cracked Billboard’s Top 100 in the U.S. It got as high as #104 on the Bubbling Under chart, then dropped off after one week.

 

That might have been the end of the story, but for one thing. The song’s video featured a cute, chubby-faced, up-and-coming 16-year-old Australian actress named Nicole Kidman. Thanks to the appearance of the former Mrs. Tom Cruise, “Bop Girl” has achieved something approaching cult status over the last few years.

 

And what of the song? It’s pretty great confection, actually. Its bump-and-grind, white R&B groove sounds like it might have been cribbed from Madonna’s “Material Girl,” but that song wasn’t released until nearly a year later. That makes you wonder if Madonna or then-producer Nile Rodgers had heard “Bop Girl” in a club and were trying to cop the “Bop.”

 

“Bop Girl” has a lot of other things going for it, though, like an impossibly catchy guitar lick and Wilson’s unaffected, enthusiastic lead vocal. The surprising appearance of fiddles halfway through even prefigures Shania Twain and Mutt Lange’s genre-mixing experiments of the 1990s. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give this record is that it really does make you wanna bop — even if you can’t dance.

 

The song was penned by Wilson’s husband, Ross Wilson, who was something of a musical star in Australia at the time, having been in the bands Daddy Cool and Mondo Rock. Of course, you can tell the record is the work of rock veterans who decided to don “hip” musical clothes and have a go at the new wave. Still, authenticity hardly matters on the dance floor, to quote the ditzy lyric, this “Bop girl’s A-OK!”

 

There’s probably a lot more I could find out about Pat Wilson. But that would probably spoil the mystery and fun of “Bop Girl.” Sometimes in life it’s best not to dig too deep and to just enjoy the superficial surface. Just ask any fan of Tom’n’Nicole.

 

“Bop Girl” was released as Warner 29361 and is out of print and not available on CD (at least not as far as we can tell). Wilson’s 1984 “Bop Girl” EP is not hard to find in used record shops, though.

 

Click here for the video. 

Desperately Faking Madonna

After Madonna became a pop sensation in fall 1984, a lot of artists copped her style. Some used her sound as an influence, but others went whole hog and cooked up copycat records that sounded uncannily like the Material Girl.

Four “imitation Madonna” records were chart hits and all of them have been virtually forgotten. Until now. What follows is a chronological list o’ discs, with their peak chart position listed first and the date they hit the charts second. If you’ve never heard these, finding them now will give you some new “old Madonna.” Sort of. Anyway, without further adieu, we present Desperately Faking Madonna:

 

1. Jellybean – “Sidewalk Talk” (#18, 11/16/85). Club DJ and remix artist Jellybean Benitez was Madonna’s boyfriend around the time of her first album. He eventually cut his own records, and this was his first chart hit. To be fair, this funky, synthesizer-fueled anti-gossip rant was penned by Madonna, who sings the choruses. But since she went uncredited and a vocal doppleganger named Catherine Buchanan sang the lead vocal, it’s listed here. Tuneful but cloying after a while. Available now on the “Flawless” movie soundtrack.

 

2. Regina – “Baby Love” (#10, 6/21/86). Regina Richards was a true one-hit wonder and never charted at all outside of this record. Madonna collaborator Stephen Bray co-wrote it with her, and it sounds a bit like some of his other Madonna tunes (“Think of Me,” “Into the Groove”). The lyric is a boldly Madonna-esque assertion of female sexuality (“Boy, there’s no one home tonight…Why should we pretend to be just friends?”). Yet the melody is sentimental, giving the song an interesting ambiguous quality. Out of print.

 

3. Tia – Boy Toy (#87, 3/7/87). Maybe forgotten singer Long Island singer-songwriter Tia didn’t have success with this record because she was too way derivative. Besides using Madonna’s trademark phrase for a title, she starts the disc by quoting her first hit, “Burning Up.” The thunderous drums and synthetic handclaps make this production sound like it was meant for the dance floor, and that’s probably where it’s best heard. Shame we can't make a time machine and go back to an 1980s club. Oh well. Very out of print!

 

4. Elisa Fiorello and Jellybean – “Who Found Who” (#16, 7/11/87). Sounding uncannily like “Live to Tell”-era Madge, 17-year-old Fiorello sings this pleading love song like she really means it. Jellybean’s production kicks a cool ’80s groove, with thwacking electric guitar and bell-like synth tones. It’s hard to imagine that back in the Reagan Era, this music sounded bold and daring and was an affront to the established rock sounds. It now comes off as positively sweet and innocent! Available on “1987: 20 Original Chart Hits.” Or try YouTube.

The Attractions go `Mad’

The Attractions - Mad About the Wrong BoyDidja ever meet those people who seem all normal on the surface, but when you get to know ’em you find out they have rooms filled with horror movie memorabilia or tons of books about serial killers?

“Mad About the Wrong Boy,” the sole LP that The Attractions recorded without Elvis Costello is kind of like those people.

It’s sweet and poppy upon first listen, with lots of shiny, happy melodies, and bubblegum-synth gurgles and squawks. It’s even got a cute cover, featuring both an adorable little dog and a tasty-looking breakfast. It’s in the lyrics that the weirdness crops up, though. Songs touch on themes like self-loathing (“Damage Me”), desperate housewives (“Highrise Housewife”), mindless conformity (“Lonesome Little Town” and “Straight Jacket”) and nuclear war (“Arms Race”). The album’s tales of British life often recall The Kinks’ “The Village Green Preservation Society,” but Ray Davies’ wistfulness was supplanted by The Attractions’ bitterness.

When the lyrics aren’t dark, they’re often inscrutable and very open to interpretation. For example, does the LP’s “Single Girl” excoriate a self-centered career woman or the “virgin vigilantes” that court her? Or is it just a breezy song with some oddball phrases thrown in? Considering how strong the song’s hooks are, maybe it doesn’t matter what writers “Brian & Hart” meant.

About that songwriting credit: “Brian & Hart” is Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve and his wife. I know this because he told it to me when I met him after a Costello concert in 1983. However, on the songs Nieve writes by himself, he confusingly uses the name Nieve. Got that? Bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas chime in with a few songs (and play excellently throughout), but it’s mostly Nieve’s show.

Seeing how this is being written for “Lost in the Grooves” and not a site called “The Eighties Great Hits” or something, it probably goes without saying that the public didn’t go mad for The Attractions’ “Wrong Boy.” Rock critics – who behaved towards Elvis Costello like 13-year-old girls behave towards Justin Timberlake – could not emotionally handle a Costello-less Attractions LP and dismissed it as lightweight. But there are enough great tunes on this 16-song LP to make it consistently listenable. And to make you wish there had been a follow-up.

 “Mad About the Wrong Boy” was originally released as F Beat XXLP8 in 1980 and was released on CD in 1999 by Demon Records. It’s available on Amazon.com.

Rob Hegel’s Bizarre Love Triangle

 

Rob HegelForget albums, CDs, or artists. Sometimes all you need to make a definitive statement is a single song.

 

Rob Hegel did just that in the summer of 1980 with a hilariously scandalous soap opera of a pop song called “Tommy, Judy & Me.” Crass, crude and unforgettably catchy, it embodied the 1980s teen zeitgeist before there was such a thing. Problem was, teen movies, not teen-themed songs, were popular in the 1980s. So Hegel’s adolescent opus stalled out at #109 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under chart and was swiftly forgotten.

 

“Tommy, Judy & Me” tackles the sticky topic of teen sex. A lot of people discover sex in high school; what Makes Hegel unique is that he penned a tune that vividly commemorates every perverse feeling and social interaction relating to the topic. He throws in characters we’d soon see on the big screen: a tuff chick, a would-be cool dude, and a nerdy antihero.

 

Hegel was a songwriter who co-wrote Air Supply’s hit “Take Me as I Am,” and penned much of the score to a 1970s Saturday morning TV show called “The Kids From C.A.P.E.R.” Nothing in his resume pointed to “Tommy, Judy & Me,” though. The title alone lets you know for the get-go that this is no “boy meets girl” story. It’s more like: Boy gets lousy sex advice from a friend, gets the girl anyway, then learns said friend is a lair. And impotent. Forget New Order — this is one really bizarre love triangle.

 

The music sounds like a cross between The Cars and late period Styx. But the song stands out because of its semi-spoken, semi-obscene verses (where Hegel seeks advice from Tommy) and singalong chorus. When Hegel sing to Judy that “he’d like to know her” and her comely reply is that she “only likes what she hasn’t done twice.” John Hughes couldn’t have written it better.

 

Had anyone heard it, “Tommy, Judy and Me” might have been labeled offensive. But what’s most shocking now is how the song casually prophesizes the Columbine school shootings. In verse two, Tommy says he’s “bought a gun and that one day they’ll remember his name.” To which Hegel distractedly responds: “Let’s change the subject, Tommy, let’s talk of Judy.” See how no one takes the time to listen to troubled teens?

 

Even with its oddball outrageousness, “Tommy, Judy & Me” works because it captures the anxiety-riddled vibe of teendom. It’s awkward, embarrassing, immature, and sometimes totally phony. Just teen life like the real world.

 

“Tommy, Judy & Me” was released as RCA single #12009. Blog entry originally posted 3/16/06.

A Twister of Twist Songs

In a recent MSNBC commentary, I mentioned that the old dance known as the twist was so ubiquitous in early 1960s that even soul great Sam Cooke spent time twisting the night away. Although some commenters seemed incredulous about this, that really is a fact: Cooke’s “Twisting the Night Away” hit Number 9 on the Billboard charts in 1962 (a cover version by Rod Stewart got to Number 59 in 1973).

  

That got me thinking about how the twist wasn’t just a trendy dance – it was an all-out craze. It took off in 1960 and then got revived two years later. I first noticed this while I was in college and used to spend my “study time” studying the Billboard book of   top 100 hits (aka “Top Pop Singles), which I later bought. A huge number of artists cut twist records. Most of us know all the hits, by Chubby Checker, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, etc. So here’s a list of some of the weirdest.

Rod McKuen - The Oliver Twist

“Twisting Bells” – Santo and Johnny (#49, 1960)

“Kissin’ and Twistin’” – Fabian (#91, 1960)

“Everybody’s Twistin’” – Frank Sinatra (#75, 1962)

“The Alvin Twist” – The Chipmunks (#40, 1962)

“Oliver Twist” – Rod McKuen (#76, 1962)

“Twistin’ Postman” — The Marvelettes (#34, 1962)

“The Basie Twist” – Count Basie (#94, 1962)

“Tequila Twist” – The Champs (#99, 1962)

“Twistin’ All Night Long” – Danny and the Juniors (#68, 1962)