Billboard #1s for the Week Ending April 21, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now) Phil Collins 1
R & B She’s Strange Cameo 3
Country The Yellow Rose Johnny Lee with Lane Brody 1
Adult Contemporary Hello Lionel Richie 3
Rock You Might Think The Cars 2
Album Footloose Soundtrack 1

StephensonDelilahThis week sees a successful songwriter and future Country star debut with his only pop Top 40 hit. Van Stephenson was born in Ohio in 1953; his family moved to Nashville when he was 10. He played in a number of garage bands and began writing songs. He had some success with Country hits by Crystal Gayle and Marty Robbins. In 1981, he released his debut album, China Girl with limited success. His 1984 follow-up, Righteous Anger, included the hit Modern Day Delilah. That song debuted at #71 this week and peaked at #22 two months later. After one more minor hit, his pop career dried up.

Stephenson returned to writing Country hits, notching Top 20s by Dan Seals, Kenny Rogers, Janie Fricke and Lee Greenwood. Co-writing with Dave Robbins, he gave five big hits to Restless Heart including the #1 Country song Bluest Eyes In Texas. Heartened by their success, the pair teamed with veteran Southern rocker Henry Paul (of the Outlaws and his own band) to form Blackhawk. The trio had 14 Country top 40 hits in the 90s; their biggest pair went to #2, Every Once In A While (written by Stephenson) in 1994 and I’m Not Strong Enough to Say No in 1995. Stephenson died of melanoma in 2001.

Song of the Day, April 18: Train In Vain (Stand By Me) by the Clash

ClashTrainToday’s song is Train In Vain (Stand By Me). Sometimes an afterthought can be a powerful thing. The Clash had pretty much wrapped up their masterpiece, London Calling, when Mick Jones and Topper Headon returned to the studio to record one last track. Jones wrote the song as a shout-out to the traditional rock and blues roots that form part of the band’s musical ancestry. Punk in its intensity and simplicity, it’s also a great straight-ahead pop rocker and proved the Clash’s first hit in the U.S. A tasty bit of anger and sorrow, it was an instant classic.

All the times
When we were close
I’ll remember these things the most
I see all my dreams come tumbling down
I won’t be happy without you around

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, April 17: Maybe Then I’ll Be A Rose by June Tabor

TaborRoseToday’s song is Maybe Then I’ll Be A Rose. The great Les Barker wrote this poem at the request of harpist Savourna Stevenson. She was creating material for inclusion in her 1995 project Singing the Storm, commissioned by the Borders Festival. She wrote the music for all the songs in the project and created a lovely musical backdrop for Barker’s poem. Joining her for the project and later album were bassist Danny Thompson and singer June Tabor — truly a magnificent assembly. Tabor enjoyed the song so much that she re-recorded it for her album Rosa Mundi, a look at the rose as symbol, emblem, and flower in song.

It’s a wonderful song, taking the doomed lover who finds happiness only after death motif and demanding a smarter approach. Clearly referencing Barbara Allen — who is buried with her beau, Jemmy, and only embraces him after death when they have become a rose and a briar — Barker insists that waiting for the grave to find happiness is a mistake. It’s stern but witty, and Tabor delivers it with relish.

I don’t want that kind of love that grows so high on sorrow,
I want you today my love and I want you tomorrow.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, April 16: Helen of Troy by John Cale

CaleHelenToday’s song is Helen of Troy by John Cale, the title track from the last of three albums he recorded for Island Records. Cale had done the initial work on the album between producing Horses for Patti Smith and leaving on a tour of Italy. Island took the tapes and released them basically as-is, including songs Cale would have discarded or at least improved. He observes

It could have been a great album. [...] I was spending eighteen hours a day in the studio. When I got back, I found the record company had gone ahead and released what amounted to demo tapes. The trouble was that Island had their own ideas of what that album should sound like. They wanted to include songs I don’t particularly like, but it was also an impertinent assumption on my part that I was capable of managing myself.

Cale would rework some of his favorites on later releases. This track works well as it is, a disturbing look at obsession and conflicting ideas of beauty. He sings the main lyrics in one of his most bombastic deliveries, mixing this with snide asides spoken in a creepy, campy lisp. The effect is jarring and disturbing, fitting the dramatic musical setting and creating one of Cale’s most offbeat but effective songs.

Enjoy this dark gem today.

Song of the Day, April 15: Sligo Maid by Steeleye Span

SteeleyeSligoToday’s song is Sligo Maid. This popular traditional Irish reel has been recorded by dozens of bands. Steeleye Span included it on Rocket Cottage, the 1976 album that was the last to feature their classic lineup before decades of short-term break-ups and reconfigurations. Maddy Prior describes the song in reference to a live version recorded in 1982:

This tune is a very popular traditional Irish reel and was always played during the many sessions that took place around that time in the Irish pubs in London. It was generally placed in the middle of a medley of three reels. A good arrangement from the band and some great drumming from Nigel. This is “Folk-Rock”.

She’s right. It’s the perfect mix of the traditional — mostly represented by stellar fiddling — and the modern — driven by potent drum and bass work — shows off this great band at its finest. Enjoy this rollicking tune today.

Song of the Day, April 14: Nothing Else Really Matters by Patty Larkin

LarkinStillNothingToday’s song is Nothing Else Really Matters by Patty Larkin. After her father’s death, she found herself writing songs — some whole, some fragments, some promises of things to come — intending to sort them out after she had had some time to heal. Then, in close order, her mother also passed away and her sister suffered a stroke. Larkin spent time dealing with the practical aspects of these crises, then retreated to the dunes to contemplate and recover. She sorted through the 40 or so songs she had and selected the finest to work into a new album.

The result, Still Green, is her finest effort in years. Nothing Else Really Matters is the standout track in that stellar company. A wonderful reflection on making the most of life while we have it and the redemptive power of love, it features some of her best lyrics. Unusually, it also relies more heavily on her vocals than her deft and always solid guitar work. She turns in a particularly fine performance — raw, aching, determined, and noble all at once. The result is a fitting tribute to those she lost and a celebration of the family that provide her circle of support.

Enjoy this tantalizing teaser of a remarkable song today.

Album of the Week, April 13: “Security” by Peter Gabriel

Gabriel, Peter - SecurityPeter Gabriel was born in 1950 in Surrey, England. He began attending the Charterhouse School in 1963, where he met four other lads and formed the band Genesis. They became leaders in the growing progressive rock movement, releasing six albums in six years that featured epic songs with a distinctively English fabulist tone. As Gabriel’s prominence in the band caused some tension given its collectivist history, he began to develop an interest in other musical styles and song structures. Things came to a head with 1975′s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway a two-disc epic that made the most of the tensions but convinced Gabriel it was time to strike out on his own.

He released three albums between 1977 and 1980, all titled Peter Gabriel (“like issues of a magazine,” Gabriel observed.) Affectionately known as “Car” (1977), “Scratch” (1978), and “Melt” (1980) for their cover features, the three showed his rapid growth as a songwriter and musician, with a focus on dark narratives, psychology, and relationships. Gabriel also developed a strong interest in musical styles and structures outside the rock mainstream, including a fascination with traditional African and Native American music. Those forces came to the fore as he recorded his fourth album.

Title Peter Gabriel (4 aka Security)
Act Peter Gabriel
Label Geffen Release Date September 6, 1982
Producer David Lord and Peter Gabriel
U.S. Chart  28 U.K. Chart  6
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. The Rhythm of the Heat
  2. San Jacinto
  3. I Have the Touch
  4. The Family and the Fishing Net
  5. Shock the Monkey [#29]
  6. Lay Your Hands On Me
  7. Wallflower
  8. Kiss of Life

Gabriel titled the disc Peter Gabriel again, but his North American label, Geffen, insisted on a “real” title, adding a sticker to the albums calling it Security. It’s an interesting choice that — despite Gabriel’s well-known objections — captures the spirit of things nicely. One of the first full-digital recordings, it features his growing mastery of sampling and synthesisers, his strong knowledge of standard rock instrumentation — complete with a solid backing band, and his new interests in so-called World Music. The result is a strong, cohesive album that serves as the high point of a fascinating career.

Gabriel introduces the album with The Rhythm of the Heat, a narrative inspired by Carl Jung’s experiences with traditional African drummers. It’s a perfect welcome, capturing his own intent through story, a theme that fits the traditionalist thread that runs through the disc. A powerful song that mixes the modern with the ancient, it works on multiple levels, emphasized by mixing the vocals low enough to allow the dance troupe drumming to share the lead. San Jacinto crosses the Atlantic to study the plight of the Native American. Opening with a fragile synth line that sounds just traditional enough to be jarring and comforting at once, Gabriel moves his vocals to the fore as befits the oral history. I Have the Touch is a driving rocker, pondering the rituals that persist in modern life and the ways we interact. The use of the world beat rhythms to underpin the song both propels it and emphasized the “the more things change…” theme of the album. The Family and the Fishing Net takes a much more subtle approach, comparing modern Western weddings with older traditions. Using Gabriel’s proven technique of short, elliptical fragments woven into an emotive tapestry, it’s an oddly compelling piece that works its magic with or without the words.

Shock the Monkey was his first big international hit (reaching #1 on the US Rock Chart for two weeks), introducing him to American audiences. A dark meditation on jealousy, it uses animalistic images to show just how close we are to our evolutionary ancestors. It’s an amazing song that helped open the doors for other rock musicians to explore alterative musical styles as the 80s moved forward. Lay Your Hands On Me is a moving chant about trust — with darkness all around the edges. Gabriel’s urgent plea shows off his growth as a vocalist nicely as well. Wallflower, a more abstract approach to the themes he explored in 1980′s Biko, was inspired by the plight of political prisoners in Latin America. A quietly powerful song, it works as a reflection on psychological imprisonment as well. With its slow build and demanding closing, it’s one of Gabriel’s finest songs. Things wrap up  brilliantly with the celebratory Kiss of Life. A lusty dance tune built on tribal rhythms, it sets the stage for his more typical rock success while perfectly summing up this album on an uncharacteristically joyous note.

FURTHER LISTENING: For just over a decade, Peter Gabriel was a fairly prolific, rapidly growing force in rock music. His interest in synthesizers and traditional rhythms grew and merged, creating a unique, powerful sound. From 1977 to 1989 he released five traditional studio albums, a double live set, and two interesting (mostly instrumental) soundtracks. Since then, his productivity and creativity have levelled off noticeably, although every album has something to offer. “Melt” (aka Peter Gabriel 3) is a close contender for his finest work. Compared with Security, it is arguably a stronger album lyrically but not quite as important  a landmark in his career or the musical landscape. (Curiously, Gabriel re-recorded both his materspieces with German lyrics. The results are surprisingly compelling and recommended for real fans.) So is his commercial high point, featuring the great #1 romp Sledgehammer. It’s experimental moments, however, trend toward the quirky rather than the groundbreaking.

Gabriel’s work is sadly short on effective anthologies. He leans on live albums which show off his creativity nicely but often present quite different interpretations of familiar songs. The best overview of origianl material is 1990′s Shaking the Tree. It’s heavy on tracks from So (which makes it easier not to bother with that disc) and completely omits any of the handful of truly wonderful songs on his second album (“Scratch”). It’s a fine purchase for casual fans or those interested in his international hits. Serious listeners should pick up all four “Peter Gabriel” releases instead and toss in So for completeness.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending April 14, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Footloose Kenny Loggins 3
R & B She’s Strange Cameo 2
Country Thank God For the Radio The Kendalls 1
Adult Contemporary Hello Lionel Richie 2
Rock You Might Think The Cars 1
Album Thriller Michael Jackson 37

WilliamsHearItThis week sees Thriller mania give way to a shorter but powerful burst of Footloose mania. As Kenny Loggins spent his third and final week at the top of the Hot 100, the soundtrack album was poised to bump Thriller from the top next week, and an impressive three more hits from the soundtrack appear in the Top 40. Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero moves to its #34 peak; Shalamar ease from #45 to #39 on their way to #17. Deniece Williams blasts from #56 to #38 in her second week on the chart with Let’s Hear It For the Boy, destined to become the second number one from the soundtrack and of her career.

Williams sang backup for Stevie Wonder in her early 20s before striking out on her own. She debuted with Free [#2 R&B, #25 Pop] in 1976. Fifteen months later, she helped Johnny Mathis score his first #1 on the Hot 100 with the duet Too Much, Too Little, Too Late. The song also topped the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. Her next six singles went into the R&B top 50 but found limited success on the pop charts. It’s Gonna Take A Miracle was a brief return [#10 pop, #1 R&B] in 1982. Another two-year pop dry spell (with a handful of moderate R&B hits) was broken by the Footloose phenomenon. It proved to be her biggest hit, spending two weeks atop the Hot 100 and three on the R&B charts while making it to #3 on the Adult Contemporary chart; it was also her second (of two) Dance #1. Although she never returned to the pop Top 40, Williams continued to chart R&B throughout the 80s.

Song of the Day, April 11: Down to You by Joni Mitchell

JoniDownToday’s song is Down to You by Joni Mitchell, a particularly lovely song from her masterpiece, Court and Spark. Demonstrating her continued growth as a musician and songwriter, it’s a complex meditation on life and love. Like most of the album, it works both on the personal, confessional level and as a universal observation. That tension makes the whole disc work and is particularly evident here.

With a strong, clear vocal and a quietly sympathetic band, Mitchell ponders the ups and downs that make up a typical life. She also weaves in a “constant stranger,” a figure of both attraction and confusion. It’s a splendid mix and remains one of her finest moments.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, April 10: I Shatter by the Magnetic Fields

MagFieldsShatterToday’s song is I Shatter by the Magnetic Fields. It’s one of the most successful experimental tracks on Stephin Merritt’s masterpiece, 69 Love Songs.

The song features a harrowing cello bit performed by long-time band member Sam Davol. He’s an interesting character, as are most of the Fields’ performers. A former legal aid attorney and part-time non-profit manager, he got involved with Merritt and the music bug bit hard. He quit his day job to dedicate more time to performing and touring with the band. His cello adds rich textures to Merritt’s often minimalist and quirky songscapes.

Blended with the sawing is a heavily processed vocal by Merritt, dropped shockingly lower than his usual bass. Speak-singing the main lyrics, he accompanies himself with asides in his highest normal register. The combination works extremely well, with super-bass Merritt narrating a tale of failed love while regular Merritt provides insights like a shoulder angel. Spooky and compelling, it all hangs on one clever, potent observation:

Some fall in love — I shatter.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

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