Rich Wilhelm

Archive for the ‘1985’ Category

HooplaThon Day 4: Starship Versus a Nap. Starship Wins!

In 1985, memoir, Music/Memory on September 15, 2016 at 1:06 am
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HooplaThon Day 4 HooplaMeter: The Hoopla is beginning to feel like quicksand.

Back on Day 1 of this adventure, I noted that one of the reasons I was launching this Starship enterprise was to battle back my recent instinct to take an early evening nap, from which I subsequently wake up at midnight and can’t get back to sleep.

Tonight is one of those nights. The sleepy siren songs are calling me, and yet Starship is calling me louder, telling me that you can’t build a city on rock’n’roll–or any other foundation really–if you’re sound asleep before your 14-year-old kid is, and then wide away in the wee small hours. So here I am, freestyling it. That’s right–it’s straight from my brain to the keyboard tonight.

The thing about Starship and “We Built This City” and Knee Deep in the Hoopla, is that there really is so much to say about it all. It’s all about what constitutes bad music, what good versus bad taste is, what the ’80s were like and how bands that started in the ’60s coped with being middle-aged rock stars in the era of Prince, Madonna and Michael.

It’s about synthesizers and power ballads; selling out and buying in; the meaning of “hoopla” then and now; ironic listening. It’s about Marconi and mambas.

So, OK, let’s start with those mambas. You’d think Marconi would be playing a “mambo,” but it sure as hell sounds like Mickey and Grace are singing “mamba.”

Thanks to my dad, I know a thing or two about mambas. I know that there are green mambas and there are black mambas.

And, again, all thanks to Dad, I know that the black mamba is the most poisonous snake on earth. Even more poisonous than the cobra.

This is the kind of information Dad was prepared to offer anytime, anywhere. I think he would most often talk about mambas when we were walking through the reptile house at the Philadelphia Zoo, but I have a feeling that there were random moments throughout my childhood when Dad would discourse on the awesome, overwhelmingly venomous, way-more-deadly-than-the-cobra great black mamba.

So, oddly, when I hear “We Built This City,” I think of Dad. I have no idea what Dad thought of the song but I can almost hear him exclaim, “What the hell is Marconi messing with a mamba for? Doesn’t he know how freakin’ deadly they are?”

I’ve been thinking about Dad this week anyway. I always do when I drive his Jeep, which I’ve been doing this week. The radio/CD play doesn’t work–even when Dad was with us, he claimed the CD player only worked when the temperature was plus or minus two degrees of some number. When it did work, the only CD he listened to in the Jeep was Led Zeppelin Live at the BBC. And maybe the Ry Cooder film music compilation. But definitely not Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

Anyway, I’ll listen to my portable CD player sometimes in the Jeep, but there are times when the silent commute is nice. Contemplative. Except this week, all I can contemplate is Starship. “We Built This City.” Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

I’m working on theories about all this. “Looking for clues,” as the late, great Robert Palmer once noted, though I doubt that Starship was among his concerns.

There is some kind of unifying theory that explains “We Built This City” and Knee Deep in the Hoopla. And one of these nights, during this HooplaThon, I’m going to crack that code. It’s not looking good for me revealing any of my revelations tonight, but soon. It’s all going to happen. Nothing’s going to stop me now. Because I’m layin’ it on the line and it’s not over ’til it’s over. But for tonight, it’s over.

As always, I’d like to thank my sponsor for the HooplaThon, Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

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HooplaThon Day Three: “A Curious Study in Failure”

In 1985, music, Music/Memory, Music/Opinion on September 14, 2016 at 2:15 am
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HooplaThon Day 3 HooplaMeter: Check it out, I am officially knee deep in the hoopla.

Sitting in a staff meeting at work this morning, my friend Chris Davis noted that a certain situation was “a curious study in failure.” My hand dropped to the table with more force than I meant it to and I stared at Chris in wonder. Without meaning to, Chris had perfectly described Starship’s  Knee Deep in the Hoopla album, in which I’ve been immersing myself.

Before I get to that phrase, “curious study in failure,” I’d like to suggest that, if you’re tired of me yammering on about Starship, you should check out Chris’ Vault of Thoughts blog. Chris has indeed filled his blog with many intriguing thoughts and ideas, none of which have anything to do with Starship.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla was certainly not a commercial failure. Propelled by “We Built This City” and “Sara,” the album was a big hit and went a long way toward establishing the new Starship brand. Critically though, it was a different story.

At least, I think it was. Retroactively, everyone has been dissing “We Built This City,” and, by extension the album that spawned it, for decades. But I haven’t delved deep enough into the original reviews to determine if critics and the listening public hated it then as much as critics and the listening public seem to hate it now.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I do not remember having a visceral reaction, pro or con, to the first time I heard “We Built This City.” I don’t even explicitly remember the first time I heard the song. It just seems to have shown up one day and I sort of accepted it for what it was and moved with my life.

There is more to say, other Knee Deep threads to eventually tie together as my HooplaThon continues for now. But for now, I’ll just leave you this photo of the original picture sleeve for “We Built This City.” This will prove conclusively that I was a member of Starship, at least until Grace Slick kicked me out:

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The original picture sleeve for “We Built This City.” I was indeed a member of the band, and played a theremin solo on this song. But then, Grace Slick got mad at me when I asked her to remind me what dormouse said. She threw me out of the band and wiped my theremin solo.

Don’t forget: the HooplaThon is sponsored by Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

 

 

HooplaThon Day 2: Starship and the “Art of Listening Ironically”

In 1980s, 1985, music, Music/Memory, pop music on September 13, 2016 at 2:56 am
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HooplaThon HooplaMeter Day 2: Ankle Deep in Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

Program Note: In yesterday’s initial HooplaThon entry, I noted that I’d be listening to Knee Deep in the Hoopla and writing about it for 31 days in a row. Clearly, I was delusional. After a good night’s sleep, I have realized the insanity. I’m now not going to promise any number of entries so you can clear those early October evenings you were reserving to read HooplaThon entries. We’ll just play this all by ear.

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Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released on September 10, 1985. It was the first album by just plain Starship after longtime Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship member Paul Kanter jumped ship and took the Jefferson with him.

Starship took the opportunity of a name change to reevaluate and update their sound for the mid-1980s. With a modern-minded producer named Peter Wolf–very clearly not the J.Geils Band singer–at the producer’s desk, Starship ceded most of the heavy songwriting work to outsiders and relied on Wolf to overlay the resulting songs with a slick synthesized veneer that was clearly meant to appeal to ’80s kids with a yen for technopop. Like me.

Of course, by the time September 1985 rolled around, a lot of us new wavers had passed through our initial synthpop rush and moved onto other things. Things that were a little more organic (R.E.M.) or rocked in a more traditional, if shambolic way (Replacements) or were less concerned with the state of their hair than the guys in A Flock of Seagulls. Though, of course, everyone was concerned with the state of their hair in the 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong though. Even in ’85, I continued to like artists who creatively incorporated electronics into their music. But artists like Eurythmics and Thomas Dolby had a knack for using synthesizers in intriguing ways, as something more than aural window dressing. Knee Deep in the Hoopla, on the other hand, is all about the electronic window dressing. Even when Marconi is playing the mamba, it’s an electronic mamba.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the initial release of Knee Deep in the Hoopla had absolutely no effect on me at all. I do not remember having any reaction at all to the huge breakout hit, “We Built This City” or the equally popular follow-up, “Sara.” What’s weird about this, is that Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released at the perfect time for me, as I was just about to fully submit to the fine art of listening to music ironically. Or, more appropriately, “listening ironically,” because when you’re going ironic, you do everything in quotation marks. Or more, appropriately “do everything.” But you get the point. Actually, you “get the point,” right?

Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released just days after I moved into the second floor of Johnson Hall for my third year of college at Temple University. As record store workers worldwide were stocking copies of Starship’s new album, I was getting to know Rick and Greg, two of my new floor mates, and good friends of mine to this day.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla could have been a huge talking point for the three of us, as we bonded early over music. Once we located each others’ senses of humor, we particularly bonded over the idea of listening to music ironically. That is, picking out a band or album that we might not actually be all that into and TOTALLY EFFIN’ ROCKIN’ OUT to said band or album.

In other words, “totally effin’ rockin’ out” in quotation marks.

We never explicitly said to each other, “Hey, let’s listen to music ironically.” It just happened.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla would have been a perfect “ironic listen” for us. And yet it wasn’t to be, because another band, a band whose name I am not going to reveal in this entry, loomed large, very large, in our ironic listening.

More on ironic rocking as I sink ever deeper into the Hoopla tomorrow night.

This HooplaThon is being sponsored by Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

 

 

 

 

Two of a Kind? R.E.M. Meets Talking Heads!

In 1980s, 1985, music, Music/Memory on June 10, 2015 at 9:32 pm

Can’t get there from here? That’s because you’re on a road to nowhere!

Thirty years ago today–June 10, 1985–I walked into a record store. I am not absolutely certain, but I think it was the Sounds of Market near 13th and Chestnut, in Center City Philadelphia. Don’t look for it now; it’s long gone.

I walked out of that store with two albums, both just released that day: Little Creatures by Talking Heads and Fables of the Reconstruction by R.E.M. I caught the train and bus home and soon after that, I taped the albums back to back on a cassette tape. I proceeded to spend the summer of 1985 riding buses and trains from deep in Delaware County to the heart of North Philadelphia, listening to that tape on a constant loop.

Little Creatures and Fables of the Reconstruction–or if you prefer, Reconstruction of the Fables (which I don’t)–did not change my life in any major way. But, as the primary soundtrack to the summer of my 20th birthday, both records certainly secured a place in my heart, brain and soul. Three decades later, R.E.M.’s third full-length studio album and Talking Heads’ sixth continue to inspire and beguile me.

Here is what I wrote in my journal on 6/17/85, after I’d had a week to listen to both albums:

The brand new albums by Talking Heads and R.E.M. are both fantastic records. The Heads album seems like a culmination of everything the band has ever done. It has the minimalist new wave approach of the early albums, but many of the songs have retained the funk elements of Speaking in Tongues.

The name of the LP is Little Creatures, an excellent title since at least two of the songs are about children. One of them, “Creatures of Love,” is a country song, which is a real departure for the band.

Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M.’s follow-up to Reckoning, is a stunning moody album. It’s similar to the Murmur album in that the sound of the music and the mood it generates is more important than song titles or the lyrics. Fables sounds like it contains a lot of desperation and loneliness.

R.E.M and Talking Heads were already among my musical favorites the day of their dual release, but these two records solidified my love of both bands. I remember how much I loved sinking into the dark and murky atmosphere on Fables–five years later, I’d have the same experience watching the first episode of Twin Peaks. Some fans and critics might have considered it a “grower”–an album you gradually appreciate over many listens–but I completely surrendered to the sound and feel of the album almost immediately. Seeing R.E.M. live later that summer, performing a concert as moody and dark as the album itself, was all I needed: after that, R.E.M. ascended to #1 on my favorite band list and has yet to relinquish that spot, even though the band has retired.

As for Little Creatures, it proved to be more a grower for me than Fables, but perhaps only because the deceptively simple pop songs with rootsy influences threw me for a loop after the funk-influenced sound of their previous two Talking Heads albums. But I grew to love Little Creatures. No other artist captured the way I was starting to look at life as David Byrne did on this record. The simple but odd storytelling, matched with Byrne’s detached irony, seemed like a great way to describe the world as I was seeing it. I still think so, though I gave up irony as a lifestyle choice many years ago.

It’s no wonder that I named my college newspaper column, “Road to Nowhere,” after the final track on Little Creatures. At least one friend asked me why I’d name my column after a song that was so obviously about death. I replied at the time that to me the song, and thus my column, was all about the journey without a destination, etc. Thirty years down the line, I’m thinking that, yeah, “Road to Nowhere” is pretty clearly about death. Of course, since I am now a cemetery tour guide, I guess I’m OK with however the song is interpreted.

I am not into nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia, though this column may indicate otherwise. However, I think we all have cultural moments–albums, movies, books, etc.–that stay fresh for us. We return to these when we need to, maybe sometimes as a form of spiritual renewal. I have spent much of today listening to Fables and Little Creatures, but I have also been very much in the moment of my life right now and both albums were a snug fit for that right now. In fact, I even had a new audio/visual juxtaposition: driving down 15th Street from Girard Avenue in Philadelphia this afternoon, I caught a glimpse of one of my favorite buildings, the magnificent Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street, as I was hearing “Can’t Get There From Here” from Fables. This was a new combination and I very much enjoyed it. It got some neurons fired up in my brain and that’s a good thing.

So, thanks Chris, Tina, Jerry and David for Little Creatures. And thanks BerryBuckMillsStipe for Fables of the Reconstruction. You created the music for my summer of 1985. And every season since.

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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