Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Winter of 84/85 – What a Golden Time for Elevator Rock!

Sometimes, just the right trend in music comes along, just at the very time when you need it most.

That describes my life, during the winter of late 1984/early ’85. I’d always loved pop music, sometimes needed pop music, and during that troubled time a movement came on the radio I’ve retrospectively dubbed “Elevator Rock.” No, it’s not as pejorative as it sounds; it’s just my moniker for a sound a few big-at-the-time rock acts made when they smoothed up their sound just a bit.

Classic rock groups have always had power ballads. One remembers Kiss’s “Beth,” Styx’s “Babe,” and Journey’s “Open Arms,” all scattered throughout the landscape of the late 70s, early 80s. But at the end of 1984, we got a nice handful of albums by such groups, and the general assortment of hits they bequeathed were, for lack of a better word, ballads. No, not “power ballads”; that term seems to describe the sort that emerged later, when hair-metal bands turned down their thunder for some meditative strains. These numbers weren’t soft by design, they just were. The mid-eighties mainstreamed a lot of edgy rock, for better or worse, but I’m not a rock critic, and I was a 14-year-old when this stuff came out. Sure, I liked Chicago and Foreigner when they were starting out, too, but I’ll always have a soft spot for their soft sounds.

You’ll see what I mean once I list them, then you’ll get an “ahh” moment. And I don’t want to get into the details of my life then, suffice to say, the radio, and my cassette tapes, offered my only true solace from the outside world.

When I went back and listened to these albums for this essay, I really felt like I went back to that time, if for just a few, scattered flashes of remembrance. The late nights at Pizza Hut, feeding the jukebox. The endless, wintry bus rides, clutching my brand-new Sony Walkman like the Hope Diamond. The rushed homework in the cafeteria, listening to the top-40 they piped in trough the intercom. And finding a way to videotape the MTV-Top 20 Countdown so I could watch the videos on my own time, usually after everyone else went to sleep.

I think I’d still like this music even if I could extract them from my memories. But I’ll never know for sure. Nor would I want to.

Here are the four key albums from that era, in order of release.

1. Chicago 17, Chicago
Release date: 5/14/84

Writer/producer David Foster resurrected Chicago’s career with their previous release, Chicago 16, so it was a no-brainer to bring him back for this one. It’s clear why they were the perfect match: Fosters synth-sound, which defined the 80s more than any single artist, fit singer Peter Cetera’s falsetto pitch like a glove. With 16’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” all the stars were aligned – it was a plaintive, heartfelt song, but coolly detached, too, with the piano, vocals and
orchestra all falling so neatly into place. The rest of the album never quite hit the mark; still, it was an improvement over their previous, dull offerings. They were back.

“Stay the Night” was the album’s first single, peaking at #16, but it wasn’t until that Fall, when “Hard Habit To Break” rocketed to #3. Not too syrupy, not too hard (for Chicago standards), it balanced not only its tone but also its lead vocals: Cetera and future lead-vocalist Bill Champlin alternated verses with seamless proficiency – I sort of look at it as a changing of the guard, as this would be Cetera’s last album, though Champlin wouldn’t truly take over until Chicago 19, the album he owns. By the end of the year, this was the must have; whether Wall to Wall Sound and Video or the Columbia House Music Club, everyone had this one.  Trust me on this.

And then the biggie: by February of ’85, “You’re the Inspiration” scored the airwaves, and no “Request and Dedication” was complete without it. Lame video, but who cared? It was just the right schmaltz, at just the right time. (It was a bleak winter, as we’d just learned four more years of Reagan were ahead of us.) And if you were about to roll your eyes at the end of the song, the “When you love somebody” outro’s completely won you over. Admit it, they did.

If it’s not Chicago’s best album (which is certainly defensible, given their avant-garde, big band-meets-rock origins), it’s definitely the apogee of the Foster era. It wisely starts off with the hard-hitting, keyboard-pounding “Stay the Night,” demonstrating the multi-tracked producing that would define the album, without neglecting the value of a good, solid hook, thanks to writer Foster.

Then comes “We Can Stop the Hurtin’” decidedly not written by Foster, and you can tell. Champlin co-wrote, and he should probably stick to singing. Not a terrible song, but it definitely slows down the momentum being so close to the beginning. Then the aforementioned “Hard Habit.” I won’t add much, except to say that it’s a nearly perfect song, starting slow and building, building, building. The fact that it’s a male duo doubly strengthens the song’s message of regret. Love the line, “Being without you, takes a lot of getting used to…” Only quibble: the end sort of peters out. Needs a tidier close.

Then “Only You,” written by Foster. Nod bad, probably one of his medium-range works. Well-produced, but missing that magical hook. Too many of these types of songs were on Chicago 16, keeping it from being fantastic. “Remember the Feeling,” written by Cetera and Champlin has good lyrics, and is arranged and produced well, but doesn’t leave you humming it. Too many modulations. Just a bridge to get to the next track:

“Along Comes a Woman,” not a Foster song, but rather co-written by Cetera. But it’s a winner (it was the first song of side two; remember, analog generation?) Perfect synth-percussion beginning, great two-part verse arrangement, solid chorus. Instrumental bridge. Nice power guitars. Great stuff.

And then ”You’re the Inspiration.” It got a lot of flack when it came out, but it was the salve for my dreary winter. I needed to hear it on my tape, and on the 98 WCAU Sunday morning countdown. I mean needed. Ironically it was also played on my hellish bus rides to school. Sort of like when they force Alex to listen to his beloved Beethoven during scenes of horror and carnage in A Clockwork Orange.

“Please Hold On”: a misfire from Foster; the less said the better. But “Prima Donna” is solid, written by Cetera, from the crappy movie Two of a Kind. I think it was a modest hit – clearly they needed filler, releasing a soundtrack song from half-a-year earlier – but no complaints. Hummable, singable, the whole nine. The album ends with the halfway decent “Once in a Lifetime,” written by longtime group trombonist J. Pankow. Plenty of synth, and Cetera even allows Pankow himself to take a verse. It ends, oddly enough, with orchestra, guitar and brass. Nothing like throwing everything in but the kitchen sink.

Chicago 17 was Cetera’s last album, and it may be their last truly great album (although I have a soft spot for 19). It’s a permanent fixture for my ’84 winter blues, and always will be. Always.

 2. Vital Signs, Survivor
Release date: August, 1984

Ides of March writer/vocalist Jim Peterik wasn’t content just being a one-hit-wonder for their 1971 hit “Vehicle,” so he spent the better part of the 70s founding the group Survivor. His claim that they would be the “ultimate band,” may have met with ore than a few doubters; their debut, eponymous album, released in 1980, failed to make much of a mark, and its successor, “Premonition,” wasn’t setting the world on fire either, despite giving them their first top-40 single, “Poor Man’s Son.” Some people heard it on the radio.

And one of the was Sylvester Stallone who wanted a band to record a similar song for his upcoming Rocky III. They did, and the rest is history. “Eye of the Tiger” catapulted them to the top of the charts. But with only one other hit, “American Heartbeat,” they were all dressed up with nowhere to go. Their next album, “Caught In the Act,” was a colossal bomb, and, to make matters worse, lead singer Dave Bickler took ill and had to quit the group shortly after. Would Peterik be another one-hit wonder with this group.  

Nope. By the time they released their third album, Vital Signs, they knew what they were doing. With new lead singer Jimi Jamison, their sound was more fluid and unified, and, most importantly, they arrived with a new batch of killer songs. Granted, they all came at the beginning, but the album’s top-heaviness is its only major flaw. Again, attending a new, unfortunate school that fall, I needed the music to survive (pun intended), and Vital Signs supplied it.

The first track is the best. “I Can’t Hold Back” peaked at #13, and its semi-acoustic begnning, with echoey Def-Leppard leanings, perfectly befit the chilly autumn during which the single was popular. By the time we get to the thundering chorus, we’re ready for it, and couldn’t get the “I can feel you tremble when we touch” refrain out of our heads if we tried.

The synth continues (gotta love it) with “High on You,” Sure the keyboards and percussion sund all studio, but hot damn, this is a good song. (Love the leadup line: “Such complete intoxication.) You know, they just don’t write this shit anymore. Yeah, I know it’s cheesy by today’s standards, but I don’t care. I’m reminded of that scene in Boogie Nights when Dirk Diggler rents the studio in the 80s and sings “You’ve Got the Touch,” thinking it’ll be such a classic. It’s played for laughs, and dramatic irony, as we look back on it with such high-minded scorn. But I didn’t. I guess I was just as tin-eared as Dirk.

“First Night” was the last single to be released, reaching #53 in 1985. It’s not bad, and definitely underrated. Abetted by a chorus that can’t be faulted for lack of energy, it’s takes things down a notch with a couple of soulful piano interludes, and ends on as strong a note as any Survivor song.

Ahhhh, “The Search Is Over.” My summer of ’85 memories could not be complete without it. The album’s biggest single (#4), it has remained a signature 80s ballad, even included in the Broadway musical Rock of Ages. Written by founders Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan, it’s as perfect a song as you’ll ever hear, rock ballad or otherwise. It’s probably the chorus that makes it: it’s just not content to lay down, musically, after “…that was just my style.” Oh, no. It goes beyond that, with a double-loop, reaching for an even higher octave: “Now I look into your eyes, I can see forever, the search is over, you were with me all the while!!!” Sublime.

(Note: I have no actual musical training, but I’m trying to articulate why this song moves me so. Do not try this at home.)

“Broken Promises” is pretty standard issue (again, that midstream piano solo goes a long way). “Popular Girl” brings back the synth, though its intro sounds suspiciously like that of Bon Jovi’s “Runaway.” Catchy, though. And then, “Everlasting” really takes things down, it’s starts out meditative, like White Lion’s “When the Children Cry,” but then picks up a bit, doing some medium-range soul-searching. I actually liked this one; it’s pretty basic, but it sounds like the precursor to late-80s power balladry, a la groups like Slayer, Poison, Def Leppard (Hysteria), etc. Too bad it wasn’t a single; could’ve done well. “It the Singer Not the Song” was familiar to me as the B-Side to “The Search Is Over” (yes, we listened to B-sides back then; those 45s were all we had). The double-verse is good, and I liked it then, but now, only fair. And that’s probably being kind.

Last we get “I See You in Everyone,” which is a fitting coda, being that it throws everthing into the pot that Survivor is musically known for. Not hitting any major highs, nor sinking to unlistenable lows, it’s a straight-down-the-line track that leaves you satisfied, but still having half a notion of flipping that cassette over and playing it all over again.

And boy, did I wear this tape out. I had just really started buying tapes in earnest that summer, and this was one of the first “hard rock” albums I bought. Made me feel grown up, like I had progressed past the point of Kenny Rogers, now ready for the Poisons and Motley Crues that loomed on the horizon.

But it helped that it had the soft stuff, too. 

3. Wheels Are Turnin’, REO Speedwagon
Release date: 11/5/84

The history of REO Speewagon is a lot longer and more involved. Suffice to say, they were no strangers to the easy listening arena by the mid 80s. Lead singer Kevin Cronin, despite a brief break from the band, kept REO grounded in real, raw basement rock throughout the 70s (listen to the live You Get What You Play For as proof). But with the humungazoid success of the decidedly softer offerings of “Keep On Lovin’ You” and “Take It On the Run:” from 1981’s Hi-Infidelity, the group mixed more ballads in with their jams. The follow up, Good Trouble, was only a modest success, but they were back on track with Wheels Are Turnin’, using that magic formula. And lighters were never left home from their concerts again.

To keep their street cred, they opened the album with its biggest rocker: “I Do’ Wanna Know” leaves the grammar at home to offer some pretty solid rockin’ and rollin’, harkening back to their early years while utilizing more polished production values. Then we take things down a couple of notches with “One Lonely Night,” in my opinion one of their best songs in general, written by keyboardist Neal Doughty. Featuring their trademark “Don’t take your girl for granted lyrics,” it abets the words with a killer hook, infinitely singable, hummable, memorable, and all of the above. Their songwriting mantra, Keep It Simple Stupid, serves them particularly well here. I think that comes from doing so much live work – this stuff has to be singable and playable, otherwise they don’t got a show!

“Thru the Window,” – uhh, the less said… (Well, they gave us a one-two punch opening; we shouldn’t ask for too much.) Its chorus strains, and Cronin tries hard, but it’s pretty goddamned weak. (Nice guitar work on the outro, though.) “Rock “N Roll Star” is another roots-returning number, a good bar tune but not striving for much more more. No real hook, flat chorus. You’ve heard “Live Every Moment,”: it was their last single, barely cracking the 40, with hokey, bumper-sticker lyrics and a general ho-hum musical structure. Predictably, Cronin wrote it.

But he is absolved with the even hokier “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Sure, the lyrics are cornball, but it’s amazing what good music can compensate for. We all know it. And it’s definitely one of those songs that I “needed.” By the time that winter set in, and those early morning alarm bells roused me like an adrenaline shot jolts a zombie, I could find solace only by myself, with songs like this unspooling within my Walkman cassette player. The opening keyboards, the earnest Cronin vocals, and the trademark REO buildup before setting down again all worked together in such a magical way. Only pop music could do that.

Unfortunately, not unlike the other albums here, it sort of peters out after that. “Gotta Feel More,” a percussion-based track is standard issue. Gotta love the earnest lyrics – they at least strive for something – but the song’s title could pretty much describe the listener too. And “Break His Spell,: despite having some infectious fifties flavorings, is pretty much instantly forgettable. The album concludes with its title track, a typically lengthy (almost six-minute) coda with just the right ratio of meditative lyrics, garage rock meets prog rock sound, and extended finale, leaving the listener with both bluster and blister. A somewhat incongruous attachment, but is it really? Haven’t we come full-circle, with an REO collection of sounds that rounds out the 70s and 80s in one easy swoop?

Overall, a pretty darn fine album. Worth the 1/10 of a penny I paid to get it from the Columbia House Music Club (minus the shipping costs, of course).

4. Agent Provocateur, Foreigner
Release date: 12/7/84

Foreigner, maybe the second best known Anglo-American collaboration in pop music after Fleetwood Mac, skyrocketed to fame in the late 70s, riding the earthy-rock trend alongside bands like REO, The Knack, Journey and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They released their requisite softie in the form of “I Want To Know What Love Is,” and, thanks to Miss Olivia Newton-John ad her monster hit “Physical,” received the dubious distinction of having the biggest #2 hit of all time. Being #2, isn’t that bad – just ask Buzz Aldrin. On second thought, don’t.

But lead guitarist/keyboardist/founder Mick Jones and lead singer Lou Gramm didn’t have that problem with their next album, late-1984’s Agent Provocateur. I had just purchased their then-GH Records, and was caught up with all hitherto material before I delved into their new sounds. And by new sounds I pretty much mean the tune that dominated the album, “I Want To Know What Love Is.”

But first things first. We start with “Tooth and Nail,” as 80s a “hard” rock song as you’ll ever get. But damned if t doesn’t have an infectious chorus, sung with enough guitar and synth-driven blister to pump up any wine-cooler-addled partygoer within six feet of a dual-cassette boom box. Bravo, Gramm – he was sure in his prime with this one, ad his songwriting credit, with Jones, cements his cred.

They also wrote the next one, “That Was Yesterday,” the single after “I Want To Know…” It went to #12, and deservedly so. Great chorus, again with exceptional keyboard work. I thnk Gramm’s voice fit the instrumentation like a glove. I know that sounds like a very basic analysis, but I mean to say it’s not necessarily the “star”; it’s part of the musical ménage that typifies the Foreigner sound. So give Jones his due, too.

And then – the big one. “I Want To Know What Love Is,” the Jones-penned ballad spent eight weeks at number one. (Who’s laughing now, Olivia?) Everyone with the tape pretty much fast forwarded to it, or included it in a mix tape (that’s what those dual decks were for). It’s poppy, it’s bluesy, it’s, it’s… good. And of course, that chorus at the end just makes it, doesn’t it? This was the song, big in Feb of ’85, that I always recollect as being the supremest of ironies, played by the thugs on my hour-long bus ride where love, or even knowing what love is – what love could possibly be – was the furthest from anyone’s minds.

“Growing Up the Hard Way” benefits from another good power-chorus but little else. Gramm tries his darndest but it’s all about the song, and this doesn’t quite have it. Nice Genesis-esque keyboard bridge, though. “Reaction To Action” offers more of the same, with a harder riff (probably the requisite Classic Rock release).

Side two is the weaker of the two. (Didn’t really have auto-reverse back then but I’d have overrode it if we did.) “Stranger in My Own House” has loads of energy but just far too simplistic musically. (We gotta do better than AC/DC here.) Tons of synth on “Love In Vain.” Long time to get to the chorus, and what a wet noodle when we do. Strained, not worth it. “Down on Love,” the final single, is the most downtempo number; nice modulation just before the chorus, good keyboards, but kinda blah. “Two Different Worlds” continues the downward slope (dreary sums it up) and “She’s Too Tough” a would-be barn-burner, completes the picture. A wimpy end to a potentially classic entry to the Foreigner canon.

So there it is. The fearsome foursome, and I could potentially add others (the Steve Perry album was a little early, ditto Night Ranger’s “Midnight Madness”). But these four will suffice: they encapsulate an era, for me at least, and a subgenre that would have lasting impact for rock music to come. (By the late-80s, every metal act featured at least one signature ballad.) But in ’84, it was an accident of timing – one that brought to me a salvation that has resonated with me in the years since.

And will for years to come. And when magnetic tape comes back, like vinyl has now, I’ll be ready with my cassettes.

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