Billboard #1s for the Week Ending November 24, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go Wham! 2
R & B Cool It Now New Edition 1
Country You Could’ve Heard A Heart Break Johnny Lee 1
Adult Contemporary Penny Lover Lionel Richie 2
Rock Run to You Bryan Adams 2
Album Purple Rain Prince and the Revolution 17

EasyLover2PhilsThis week sees an unusual act enter the Hot 100. Duets between two singers (or even occasionally two groups) are relatively common. Recordings featuring lead vocalists of two different groups — who are still active with their bands — are quite rare. Phillip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire had recorded one solo pop album that received little attention. For his second outing, he turned to Phil Collins, whose work outside of Genesis had outstripped the band’s singles performance. Collins wasn’t quite the white-hot success he would become in the coming year, but he was fresh off the #1 hit Against All Odds and preparing his third solo album. A regular producer and session musician for other artists, he agreed to work with Bailey.

This week Easy Lover, co-written by the two Phillips and Nathan East, bowed at #63. Initially credited just to Bailey, the fact that Collins’ distinctive vocals are part of the mix from the first line resulted in radio stations and the press treating it like a duet. It’s a fun romp that made it all the way to #2, trapped behind the bombast of Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is. Bailey never matched Collins’ solo success, although he has released well-regarded jazz and gospel albums. He also continues to record and perform as a member of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Song of the Day, November 21: The Barring of the Door by Silly Sisters

SillyBarringToday’s song is The Barring of the Door. A traditional British song (Roud 115, Child 275), it’s an amusing domestic tale also known as John Blunt (after one of the principles) and Get Up and Bar the Door. The couple in the song argue over who should bar the door to their home, angrily making a pact that the first to speak must perform the chore. They are so stubborn in their resolve that even the presence of burglars in their home does not move them to speak or act. The burglars finally go to far, prompting an outburst from the husband, followed by the wife gleefully demanding that he bar the door since he lost the wager.

Given the nature of the story, there are many versions of the song with added verses and a wide range of ribaldry. It has been recorded many times as well, including fine versions by Ewan MacColl and Martin Carthy. One of the nicest appears on the second collaboration between Maddy Prior and June Tabor, now formally calling themselves Silly Sisters. With a sprightly musical backing, they weave a fine harmony, clearly enjoying the silly tale.

Enjoy this delightful rendition of a traditional tune today.

Song of the Day, November 20: Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed

ReedWildToday’s song is Lou Reed’s only Top 40 entry, Walk On the Wild Side. It appears on his magnificent second solo album, Transformer. Working with producer David Bowie, Reed found a new voice for his tales of the out-of-luck, downtrodden, and marginalized, celebrating them with empathy and wit.

Wild Side is a series of biographical sketches, telling the backstories of some of the people Reed met during his time at Andy Warhol’s Factory. Adding a bit of wry joy to his usual deadpan delivery, he celebrates their courage and individuality while honestly relating their stories. Thunderthighs, a quartet of talented female vocalists, provide delightful harmonies and a distinctive doo-doo-doo musical break. The upbeat feel of the song caught radio programmers attention, allowing a song about drag queens with an explicit reference to oral sex to crack the Top 20, peaking at #16.

A highlight of Reed’s masterpiece album, it’s one of his finest moments. Enjoy this classic hit today.

Song of the Day, November 19: Sulk by Billy Bragg

BraggSulkToday’s song is Sulk by Billy Bragg. He included it on the Accident Waiting to Happen EP released in 1992. It’s a marvelous dissection of a broken relationship, with the narrator asking his partner to be honest about where they stand rather than offering a chilly silence. Bragg is in marvelous voice, displaying his growing confidence and richer nuance of delivery. The track benefits more from the richer instrumentation of his mid-period work than many other songs, with the result being a splendid three minutes of pop mastery.

If you hate me, why don’t you go?
And if you love me, why don’t you let me know?
But you just won’t give me an inch, so
You just sulk.

Enjoy this musical gem today.

Song of the Day, November 18: Matty Groves by Fairport Convention

FapCoMattyToday’s song is one of the most compelling moments in the early days of the British folk rock movement. Matty Groves is a very old traditional British ballad (Roud 52, Child 91). There are references to it dating back to 1613 making it likely that it’s been around since as early as the 14th Century. It’s a classic murder story, which accounts for much of its appeal, and exists in multiple versions with the names of the players changed but the basic events surviving surprisingly intact.

The wife of a nobleman takes advantage of his absence to invite a young man (Matty Groves) to share her bed. A servant overhears their plans and runs off to warn his master. The master returns and catches the pair in flagrante, challenging Matty to a duel. After allowing the young man to dress, lending him a sword, and giving him the first strike, the master kills Matty, only to find that his wife still prefers the dead man. He kills her in a rage and orders the pair buried together, but with “my lady at the top, for she was of noble kin.”

Fairport Convention were in a period of significant transition when they took up the song. Drummer Martin Lamble had been killed in a van crash that injured the rest of the band; the brilliant Dave Mattacks came on board to replace him. Singer Ian Matthews departed, not interested in the band’s move toward traditional music. Veteran folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick joined full-time after pitching in on the second album. Vocalist Sandy Denny, bassist Ashley Hutchings, and guitarists Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol kept the push for more traditional songs, with Hutchings doing significant research before the recording sessions. Wedding that music (plus some very folky originals) to their growing rock confidence, they created the masterpiece album Liege and Lief.

Matty Groves is perhaps the finest track on the disc, a perfect merger of a beloved song with long traditions and the band’s superb chops. The rhythm section of Hutchings/Mattacks/Nicol is amazing, propelling the whole song along with a driving beat. Sandy Denny is in fine voice, a clarion call of urgency as she tells the tragic tale. Thompson, already known for his guitar pyrotechnics, found the perfect foil in the brilliant fiddling of Swarbrick. The two coil around each other, adding a sneaky, sinister groove to the track. After the story is complete, things break into a three-minute jam with Thompson and Swarb’s instrumental work rivalling Denny’s vocal delivery on the first half. It’s folk rock at its finest, establishing Fairport as a force to be reckoned with.

Enjoy this musical masterpiece today.

Song of the Day, November 17: 1970 Red Chevelle by Eleni Mandell

MandellChevelleToday’s song is 1970 Red Chevelle by Eleni Mandell. It appears on her powerful album Thrill, a set of songs about excitement, obsession, and edgy excess of all sorts. This snippet of a song — barely a minute-and-a-half long — is a true delight, a tribute to the classic sport model of the Chevrolet line. With a surging acoustic guitar that thrums like a barely restrained motor, Mandell chants her affection for the automobile with an energy that blends the truly awed with the tongue in cheek.

Enjoy this flawless live version today.

Album of the Week, November 16: Skylarking by XTC

XTCSkylarkingXTC formed in the early 1970s in Swindon, England. Andy Partridge (vocals, guitars), Colin Moulding (vocals, bass) and Terry Chambers (drums) started with influences from the Glam movement, performing as Star Park and the Helium Kidz. By 1976, keyboard player Barry Andrews came aboard. The band began incorporating sounds from the New York punk movement and settled on the name XTC. After two well-received albums of edgy punk-pop, Andrews left the band (going on to form Shriekback), replaced by Dave Gregory who also played guitar. The group’s sound gradually became more melodic, with the punk edges giving way to more polished pop gems with just a bit of bite. Partridge, who had always suffered from stage fright, had a breakdown during their 1982 tour. As a result, the band gave up touring and Chambers left, not interested in being part of a studio-only unit. Two more albums and a number of side projects later, the studio trio of Partridge/Moulding/Gregory was critically acclaimed but not achieving great chart success, especially in the US. Given a list of producers by their label, they picked Todd Rundgren, a name they recognized from his work with their early idols the New York Dolls.

Title Skylarking
Act XTC
Label Virgin/Geffen Release Date October 27, 1986
Producer Todd Rundgren
U.S. Chart  70 U.K. Chart  90
Tracks
  1. Summer’s Cauldron
  2. Grass
  3. The Meeting Place
  4. That’s Really Super, Supergirl
  5. Ballet For A Rainy Day
  6. 1000 Umbrellas
  7. Season Cycle
  8. Earn Enough For Us
  9. Big Day
  10. Another Satellite
  11. Mermaid Smiled
  12. The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul
  13. Dear God
  14. Dying
  15. Sacrificial Bonfire

The album is notorious for the difficult recording sessions. Tensions — especially between Rundgren and Partridge — made the creation of the album painful for everyone. Despite this difficulty, the final result is a polished, cohesive masterpiece, critically lauded with some commercial success, and eventually praised by all the participants. Partridge noted years later:

[Rundgren] did do great things musically. The arrangements were brilliant and I don’t know how he came up with them… The bloke is ludicrously smart when it comes to certain things.

Drawing its name from Shelley’s poem To A Skylark and its day-in-the-life concept from the band’s decade-long evolution and some shared enthusiasm with Rundgren for the Beach Boys and the Kinks, the song cycle is a wonderful, brilliantly sequenced flow of music.

Things kick off with Summer’s Cauldron, Partridge’s celebration of nature’s joys. It’s a wonderful start, opening the disc with enthusiasm and brightness. Moulding’s Grass segues in nicely, a bit of nostalgic wordplay about amorous pursuits. His The Meeting Place follows, a perfect snapshot of early romance, with all the emotions lovingly sketched in song. This trio of lovely vignettes sets the stage, showing band at their musical peak, challenged to turn out their finest work.

That’s Really Super, Supergirl is a bitter love-gone-wrong track by Partridge, showing off his trademark wry analyses. He sings of the frustrations of dating a woman who has a split identity and the power to see through walls, somehow making the extraordinary super-heroic romance resonate with everyday frustrations. It’s one of the band’s best songs, buoyed by music that soars like the title character as the frustrated suitor is left on the ground.

The next two tracks form a Partridge-penned mini-suite, looking at rainy weather through two divergent lenses. Ballet For A Rainy Day is a celebration of nature and joy, a nice fit for the pastoral themes that run through much of the disc. Its uplift is pulled down by 1000 Umbrellas, a series of watery metaphors for coping with the end of a relationship. Each song is wonderful; as a pair, they are a moment of musical inspiration.

Season Cycle is a solid centerpiece for the album, an ode to the forces of nature and the cycles that run our lives. Seriously joyful and smilingly somber, it captures the spirit of the disc and moves the listener to the heavier themes of the second half.

Earn Enough For Us is reminiscent of the earlier Love On A Farmboy’s Wages, but a bit grittier. A determined plea to make ends meet in Thatcher’s England, it manages to wring enough hope from the despair to shine with real humanity. Big Day is a similarly two-fold track, Moulding’s pensive look at marriage as a celebration and a serious undertaking. This is another smart pairing in the wonderful sequence of songs.

Another Satellite is one of Partridge’s best songs, inspired by a reluctant flirtation that eventually ended his marriage. It’s a haunting song with powerful, echoy keyboards and a fragile, distant vocal. The lunar imagery fits the natural tone of the album at an appropriate remove, allowing the dark tune to fit into the cycle nicely.

Mermaid Smiled is a fine but lightweight track that was quickly removed from the U.S. release to make way for a later single. The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul is a charming, jazzy experiment, a pleasant enough song that doesn’t quite fit on an otherwise tightly constructed album. The two tracks don’t detract from Skylarking, but they’re close to filler.

Dear God, on the other hand, is a powerful afterthought. Recorded after the album and released as a single, it was successful enough to be added to the U.S. version of the album in place of Mermaid Smiled. A bitter broadside at a hypothetical all-powerful force who allows too much suffering, it features one of Partridge’s most powerful vocals as he presents his outrage. Another stunning moment of brilliance, it belongs to the album and adds just the right moment before the final pair.

Moulding’s Dying and Sacrificial Bonfire wrap things up. The first is a quiet look at a couple near the end of their days. It implies a long, probably happy time together, but the spectre of mortality brings a bitter edge to the narrator’s nostalgia. Bonfire takes all the darkness that weaves through the life cycles of the album and purges them, offering a striking anthem of hope and rejuvenation. It’s a fitting end for a stunning set.

FURTHER LISTENING: XTC’s gradual evolution from edge punkish pop to lush pastoral rock is a fascinating journey with many wonderful songs. The seven prior to Skylarking all have a slightly transitional feel as the very talented band members stretch themselves into new musical shapes. The best of these is the edgy, New Wavish Drums and Wires, a fairly cohesive set with some of their best songs. The two that follow the masterpiece are very consistent, well-executed sets, with Nonsuch being more cohesive and Oranges and Lemons offering more delightful high points. After a long, label-battling hiatus, they released two more discs before slowly dissolving as each member of the trio pursued his own interests. Fossil Fuel is a great two-disc set from 1992 that shows off  most of their best songs.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending November 17, 1984

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go Wham! 1
R & B I Feel For You Chaka Khan 3
Country Give Me One More Chance Exile 1
Adult Contemporary Penny Lover Lionel Richie 1
Rock Run to You Bryan Adams 1
Album Purple Rain Prince and the Revolution 16

GenlPubTendThis week sees an offshoot from a successful British band crack the Hot 100. The Beat were a 2 Tone Ska band formed in Birmingham in 1978. They racked up a number of successful singles and albums in the UK but never broke into the Hot 100 in the US (where they were billed as English Beat). The band broke up in 1983, with two new acts rising from the ashes. The first to achieve chart success was General Public, fronted by Beat vocalists Dave Wakeling (also on guitars) and Ranking Roger (also on keyboards). They kept some of the ska sound from their Beat days and blended them with elements of post New Wave pop.

Their first U.S. single, Tenderness, entered the Hot 100 this week at #89. It eased up the charts, eventually peaking at #27 in February 1985. Ironically, unlike the Beat, General Public were largely ignored in the U.K. After a few years, General Public broke up as well. Wakeling now tours with a reconstituted English Beat and often includes General Public tracks in the sets.

Song of the Day, November 14: Thing Called Love by Bonnie Raitt

RaittThingCalledLoveToday’s song is Thing Called Love. John Hiatt composed the song for his 1987 album Bring the Family, a complex song cycle through which he came to grips with his history of substance abuse, the damage we can do to our loved ones, and the redemptive power of love. His friend Bonnie Raitt borrowed the song for her unexpected comeback album, Nick of Time.

Hiatt’s original take is raw and open, with a mature sense that love can’t solve everything, but that it is a powerful, vital force. Raitt takes that sentiment and makes it sultry, adding her trademark bluesy style and crafting another adult look at love and commitment, a sort of nobody’s perfect but we might be perfect together vibe. A standout track on a strong album, it helped re-establish Raitt’s place in music.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, November 13: Tesla Girls by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark

OMDTeslaToday’s song is Tesla Girls by Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark. After their strikingly experimental fourth album, Dazzle Ships, received relatively poor commercial and critical reception, the quartet regrouped. Their next disc, Junk Culture, was not a self-consciously commercial over-reaction, however. Instead, OMD took everything they had learned about crafting smart, electronic music and blended it back into their origins. The result is a stunning synth-dance set that proves what a powerful unit they are at their best.

The standout track is the third single, Tesla Girls. Taking it’s title from the Serbian scientist who was one of the great pioneers of the electric age, the song is a nod to the band’s frequent look at our reliance on power. It also hints at Tesla’s fleeting celebrity as OMD dissect romantic politics. The Tesla Girls course with energy, inviting the listener in with both excitement and risk. It’s a wonderful lyrical conceit that is played out in a joyous dance-pop setting. One of the most energetic songs in the OMD catalog, it’s a great track in its own right and a clear statement that the band still had a lot of fascinating music to offer.

Enjoy this infectious track today.

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