Considering that The REM's debut album Murmur is celebrating its 30th birthday this year and that I've already done a retrospective for 1983 back in 2008 when the year was 25 years old, I thought it would be mildly interesting if I narrowed my focus into a three-pronged approach.
I've assembled three blogs for 1983. This one handles the "college radio" type music that found its home on left-of-the-dial college radio stations whereupon it got its goofy categorization. The second blog covers the "punk" angle. And the third will cover the hits!!
I got a lot of work to do!
25) U2 -- War:
Believe it or not, U2 were once a "college radio" band. Because classic rock radio considered Tom Petty to be New Wave enough for them. Everything up to The Unforgettable Fire was considered "alternative" and then suddenly their success changed their sound! How does that happen?
24) New Order -- Power, Corruption and Lies:
To people experiencing the 1980s second-hand, they get a lot of it wrong. They don't know where the battle lines were drawn and they don't understand why those lines were there in the first place. But imagine this. Pick the corniest, most mainstream thing you hate in today's culture. Then pick a current band or solo artist today that really touches your heart. Then see kids thirty years later liking them both "ironically" and equally and thinking their version of the truth is what actually happened. New Order fans were picked on by heavy metal kids, I assure you.
23) The Chesterfield Kings -- Here Are The Chesterfield Kings:
Not every band alive in 1983 wanted to be there. Most of the good groups were very disenchanted with where rock and pop music was heading and chose to find their own way. The garage rock revival was odder than most. It featured bands such as The Chesterfield Kings whose gameplan at the beginning was to approximate the sound of the Rolling Stones, circa their second U.S. album 12X5.
22) The Golden Palominos -- The Golden Palominos:
The 1980s featured many bands who were in a consistent state of searching for a new sound. Unlike today where everyone finds a way to be alt.country or bouncy indie-pop with a wispy girl-singer, in the 1980s no one had any idea what was a successful game plan and the high expense of recording studios further affected how good the sounds captured on record could be. Enjoying the beauty often required a bit of work on everyone's part. You earned your place, that's for sure.
21) The Blue Nile -- A Walk Across The Rooftops:
Any budding music enthusiast who wishes to have a firm knowledge of the wonderful and the esoteric needs to acquaint themselves with the Blue Nile, whose second album Hats appears to be the frontrunner. This debut, however, shouldn't be shortchanged. Don't believe the punk rock dogma that says everyone has to look and act as if they'd been dumped from the NY Dolls in order to be artistically legitimate. Having talent and using it shouldn't be a curse. But like anyone with a sophisticated weapon, you have to be careful how you use it.
20) Cocteau Twins -- Head Over Heels:
I'll be the first to admit that I have trouble telling the albums not called Heaven Or Las Vegas apart. Such beautiful anonymity guarantees that no one but a complete churl gives them a bad review.
19) The Waterboys -- The Waterboys:
Waterboys leader Mike Scott was probably the first "alternative" lead singer to really get pounded for his pretensions. Sure, the Alarm were mocked for their naive Clash-Jr. manifestos-to-nowhere but they at least came off as affable folks. Scott sounded like a hardcore romantic who never found Jim Morrison funny. It's we the listeners who learn to laugh at it all. Or move on.
18) Echo & The Bunnymen -- Porcupine:
One album shy of "The Killing Moon," the song that gave Echo their permanent foothold on the alternative scene (shouldn't Crocodiles be enough?), Porcupine went to #2 on the UK charts and #137 in the U.S., mostly because mainstream American music fans weren't much for British rock bands anymore. Due to the fact that British bands were no longer hiding their Britishness. Didn't they see what happened to the Kinks when they turned provincial?
17) Rain Parade -- Emergency Third Rail Power Trip:
The SoCal 'Paisley Underground' scene never gathered momentum. The dance beats on the radio and the manicured aggression of pop metal and the core values of heartland rock ensured that only the few who liked reaching for sounds would enjoy these slow, pretty songs where it sounds like what the Byrds might have ended up like had Gram Parsons not overhauled the map.
16) Tom Waits -- Swordfishtrombones:
Back in 1983, Tom Waits was not yet NPR's token weirdo. Most people had never heard of him and those that did thought he was terrible. The reviews, however, got better once he lost the piano-beatnik thing and went for dancing on Captain Beefheart's plot of land.
15) Siouxsie and the Banshees -- Nocturne:
Kids in art school need their heroes, too! In fact, I'm suspect of a young "artist" who prefers John Cougar over Siouxsie. Or who thinks Journey is a "great group." When you have bland tastes, you're like a Thomas Kinkade in training.
14) Pylon -- Chomp:
Before there was The R.E.M. there was Pylon. Folks in Athens, Georgia were likely amused (or pissed) when Pylon were overshadowed by the ascendence of The R.E.M. Of course, if you were in Pylon, you probably weren't amused at all.
13) The Church -- Seance:
Australian groups must learn to love to travel. Great U.S. and U.K. bands have made good livings without ever visiting the land down under, but Australian groups have generally come to the northern hemi to ensure their longevity. Yet, even with all that effort, it's still the big ol' U.S.A. that can sustain your career. Getting all of Europe to agree can be a touchy thing.
12) The Go-Betweens -- Before Hollywood:
The Go-Betweens were yet another smart, literate band from Australia who were always a huge hit single away from becoming well known. Only "Was Their Anything I Could Do?" charted and it was on the Modern Rock Charts. Their Australian charting was even worse, if we may trust our friends at the Wikipedia, where approximately is just as good as maybe!
11) Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers -- Jonathan Sings!:
Richman's career needed an alternative media outlet to give him the exposure no mainstream outlet was likely to chance. Word of mouth can't do everything! It's as if his entire career was intended to provide perennial outsiders with a hero to rally around once they got around to organizing. Richman went off the deep end, releasing a few subpar albums that made it look like he didn't want to "play ball" with college radio. But this album is a lost minor masterpiece. "That Summer Feeling" indeed!
10) The Cramps -- Smell of Female:
By the mid-1980s, the Cramps were considered in some circles to already be past their prime. No more Bryan Gregory. Kid Congo Powers on the way out. But there are always those who consider a band's first two or three records to be the ones that matter. Especially when a band gets off to as good a start as The Cramps. A live album also means capping off an era. Future bands! Be judicious with those live albums. They could be your downfall.
9) Green On Red -- Gravity Talks:
I was rather shocked as a kid to read critics dumping on these guys. I'd liked the first two EPs and I'd thought this was OK, better than much of the music of the day, but then later albums convinced me that I didn't like this album as much as I did. Suddenly, the dullness of the later songs infected the earlier ones and I could no longer hear them any other way. It was weird.
8) The Nomads -- Where The Wolf Bane Blooms:
In recent years musicians from Sweden have been accorded more respect than they ever received in the 1980s. I'm glad smart people have figured out Jens Lekman and realize that the Scandinavian version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo makes the American one OK but superfluous. Now we all need to retroactively pay our respects to Sweden's coolest punks The Nomads, who weren't five years ahead of their time but twenty years late and twenty years too early.
7) The Prisoners -- The Wisermiserdemelza:
I'd always been a sucker for bands with an organ. I loved the Doors and the Small Faces and I would've joined Iron Butterfly if I could. But these guys were my band! They sounded tight and cluttered and compressed like the early Who, with a rough pop sound that said it wasn't 1983 but 1965. They were considered out of fashion and nostalgic. But answer me this: why is a fantastic era such as 1964-1966 such a fleeting time while anything from 1982 to the present looks and sounds as if very little has changed?
6) The Legendary Pink Dots -- Curse:
I never fully understood these folks. The music sounded math-like with its disembodied synths putting down chords in odd places and the singers refusing to emote in a traditional sense. I could hear elements of psychedelia that I liked and it seemed worth it to put up with the bits I didn't care for. I'd lost track and interest in them over the years. They have made many more albums. Won't their fans write me and tell me what's up?
5) XTC -- Mummer:
Not touring was just one way to make XTC a cult band for life. Becoming more and more stubborn with your sound by shooting the hooks in the foot did the rest. And your singer is an acquired taste. And the intellectualism might be 100% truthful, but music only requires faith and a few lies. It's up to us to make that last 5% make sense -- with our hearts.
4) Violent Femmes -- Violent Femmes:
Had the Violent Femmes disbanded after just this one album, they'd be legends. But the hat trick was exposed by the less-good albums that followed. Here, all the weirdness and the sparseness and Gordon Gano's adenoidal delivery all seem a solid piece. There's nothing here to get rid of. Just keeper after keeper. Everyone called the radio station for "Blister in the Sun" and maybe "Add It Up" and twenty years after everyone says it was they who called. Except most of 'they' were listening to Def Leppard.
3) The Replacements -- Hootenanny!:
Explaining the Replacements to people who weren't there is futile. If you don't "get it," then you never will. It's not an intellectual exercise and if all the bad songs here -- and there are a few doozies -- leave you scrambling for your Green Day CDs, then I'm not sure any amount of praise or context is going to help you. The sloppiness and the indifference was part of the charm. It said welcome to a club that views all success as tainted. That may sound silly to kids used to counting their money, but it really happened that way -- and it can't happen backwards, no matter how hard you try.
2) Dumptruck -- D Is For Dumptruck:
What does it say about me when I confess to liking these guys more and more with each passing year? Why Dumptruck? Why not? History won't remember them this way. #2? To who? But that's an advantage of living through an era vs. reading about it later. You get to make up your own weird mind and know it's not reactionary or for obscurity's sake, but for the fact that you came, you saw, you liked and you remembered. That's who!
1) R.E.M. -- Murmur:
What can I say? They weren't the second-coming of music but they were surely better here where Michael was still mumbling for his dinner. College kids love the idea of a blurry French art film where no one's really sure what's going on. It feeds directly into their feelings of vagueness and un-targeted angst. Plus, it's quiet enough to not scare away the girls!