When dealing with something as personal as music, you're never going to please everyone. VH1 Classic's new CD series crosses multiple genres, but suffers when compared to better-prepared sets.
The 2000s and VH1 have manufactured a proper (and already passé) ‘80s revival. VH1’s ridiculously vapid and popular I Love the ‘80s series carved a foothold for the resurgence, while corporate synergy and deep coffers have provided sister-station VH1 Classic with a block of videos from the era and a CD collection, all under the We Are the ‘80s banner.
Eddie Money, We Are the ‘80s (Columbia/Legacy)
The CD series, the result of a partnership between VH1 Classic and Legacy Recordings, gets points for at least crossing multiple genres, but the bulk of what we’ve been saddled with here are second- and third-tier artist compilations. Like any era, the ‘80s included more than just a handful of genres, and something as personal as music means you’re never going to please everyone. A collection like this suffers from the same problems box sets do—too much to cover and too many styles to be overlooked. Even with that in mind, the artist selections here are suspect at best, and have been represented elsewhere in better-prepared and more comprehensive sets.
Case in point, Eddie Money. Limited by the flag under which this is produced, hits like “Two Tickets to Paradise”, “Baby Hold On”, and “Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star” from his 1977 self-titled debut are sacrificed here. What’s left is blue-collar rock in front of a wall of synthesizers. Time hasn’t necessarily been kind to songs like “Take Me Home Tonight/Be My Baby”, “Walk on Water”, and “I Wanna Go Back”, but they are undeniable products of the ‘80s. With its sing-along chorus and endless “na-na-nas,” “Walk on Water” is as catchy as it is embarrassing.
Eddie Money - Shakin’
The brilliant “Shakin’” and “Think I’m in Love”, both from 1982’s No Control, provide excellent glimpses into what made Money so popular—before the driving drums of album-oriented rock were supplanted by the late ‘80s drum machine sterility of songs like “The Love in Your Eyes”. This is dirty rock and roll, polished up just enough to get it played on Top 40 radio.
Loverboy, We Are the ‘80s (Columbia/Legacy)
Where Money evokes the gritty transition from late ‘70s to early ‘80s, Canada’s Loverboy epitomizes party-anthem rock of the early to mid-‘80s. Songs like “Turn Me Loose” and “Working for the Weekend”—off of their self-titled debut and its hit-laden follow up, Get Lucky—have crunchy guitars and overproduced synthesizers backing Mike Reno’s too-earnest delivery. These tunes, along with songs like “The Kid is Hot Tonight” and “Hot Girls in Love”, were the perfect soundtrack to downing a six-pack of three-two beer in the parking lot before the high school football game on a Midwest Friday night.
Loverboy - Working for the Weekend
Get Lucky‘s “When It’s Over” opens with ringing synthesizers and builds into a yearning power ballad, and it’s a high point, to be sure. But in an illustration of how easily a band can slip from respectable fare to sappy soundtrack fodder, Reno teamed up with Heart’s Ann Wilson for the love theme from 1984’s Footloose, “Almost Paradise”. Two years later, the whole group followed that up with the equally syrupy “Heaven in Your Eyes” from the blockbuster Top Gun. Remarkably, between the crap they were producing for those soundtracks, they managed to put out an album with a couple of worthy cuts: 1985’s Lovin’ Every Minute of It, including the title track and “Dangerous”. Of course, the drivel bled into this release as well, with the abysmal “This Could be the Night”. Loverboy finished up the ‘80s with “Notorious”, a return to their party roots, filtered through the high-gloss production of the time, and all delivered with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Rick Springfield, We Are the ‘80s (Columbia/Legacy)
A sense of humor is probably what Rick “My Name Ain’t Bruce” Springfield has needed most for his survival in the music business. He was dubbed an overnight sensation when American audiences found him, accused of being an actor-turned-singer once they were on board, and written off as a teen idol. In reality, by the time Springfield released Working Class Dog in 1981, it was his seventh solo album. Although his role as swoon-worthy Dr. Noah Drake on General Hospital helped his audience find him, he was a singer long before he washed up on American shores from Australia by way of England. While the teeny-boppers fell in love with him, his string of superior power pop gems has weathered the years better than a lot of other artist offerings.
Similar to the way The Essential Eddie Money is a more comprehensive collection of songs than its We Are the ‘80s counterpart, VH1 out-VH1-ed themselves when it came to the Springfield set. Six years ago, VH1 Behind the Music: The Rick Springfield Collection was released. It contains all 14 tracks found on the We Are the ‘80s version, but bests it by including four more tracks—including a previously unreleased song.
Rick Springfield - Jessie’s Girl
Audience misinterpretation and short-shrifted compilations aside, the contents of Springfield’s body of work is top-notch. Worthy of its number one ranking, 1981’s “Jessie’s Girl” is one of those absolutely timeless, classic songs. “Jessie’s Girl” is a song that everyone of the era recognizes and few will disparage for its craftsmanship. It is a rare song, like Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” which topped the charts a year later, that is above reproach for most anything except overplay—and is still beloved in spite of it. Springfield’s reading of “I’ve Done Everything for You”, also from Working Class Dog, tames Sammy Hagar’s tune, but it’s hardly a leap. Where Hagar leaned towards hard rock, Springfield was all about power pop, and those two genres were never closer than in the ‘80s.
Seeing where music was headed at the time, Springfield used “Human Touch” (performed at Live Aid) to express the same concerns many musicians were feeling as new wave began to take over the mainstream. While he was never shy about synthesizers, there is a bit of humor mixed with sincerity when he sings “Everybody’s talking to computers / They’re all dancing to a drum machine / I know I’m living on the outside / Scared of getting caught between.”
There are no filler tracks or songs to be skipped on this compilation. Even the songs from 1985’s Tao and 1988’s Rock of Life are worthy additions to Springfield’s canon. This is power pop song-craft at its finest. It’s just a shame the repackaging leaves so much to be desired.
The Bangles, We Are the ‘80s (Columbia/Legacy)
Where the work of Springfield holds up over time, the bulk of the Bangles’ efforts suffer from age. This is not to say the Bangles don’t encapsulate the ‘80s, because they most definitely do. Their sound grew out of L.A.‘s Paisley Underground movement and evolved from a garage sound to the slickly-produced pop they became known for. The harmonies of sisters Vicki and Debbie Peterson provided an organic layering to the polished orchestration and de facto frontwoman Susanna Hoffs’ lead vocals, and many of the songs collected here were ubiquitous on Top 40 radio at the time. Of course, some of their sound is really bad, too. A song like “Be with You”, off of the band’s 1988 album Everything, is a bit embarrassing for a band that had been in existence for almost eight years by that point. Then again, maybe the Bangles were just way ahead of their time—from the faux-orchestra tune-up to the sophomoric lyrics, the saccharine “Be with You” appears to be aimed at the tween demographic 15 years before Madison Avenue even identified them.
The Bangles - Walk like an Egyptian
Try as they might to cast themselves as competent songwriters and musicians, the fact that their four most well-known tracks—“Manic Monday”, “If She Knew What She Wants”, “Walk like an Egyptian”, and “Hazy Shade of Winter”—are all written by others does nothing to further the argument. Follow that up with the drivel of “Eternal Flame”, which actually was penned by Hoffs, and they aren’t really helping their cause. Knowing Hoffs being pushed as the face of the band was the root of the well-publicized breakup in 1989, it’s not difficult to imagine the band’s bass player, Michael Steele, who was in the hard-rocking and ground-breaking Runaways, being sickened by that sort of sentimental ballad.
A Flock of Seagulls, We Are the ‘80s (Columbia/Legacy)
While the Bangles tried to evolve beyond their perceived image, A Flock of Seagulls is still stubbornly clinging to its ‘80s-era pigeonhole. In the mid-‘90s, I was having dinner in an open-air restaurant at Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida. During dinner, we became aware of A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away)” playing behind our conversation, and then realized it actually was A Flock of Seagulls playing the sidewalk in front of the Virgin Megastore! A few years later, I went to a concert at Pine Knob in Detroit that consisted of A Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, the Smithereens, and the Violent Femmes. As the opening act of a four-bill show, A Flock of Seagulls failed to shine, playing three—count ‘em, three!—versions of “I Ran (So Far Away)” to fill their brief set. Sad, really. They are still the butt of jokes among the group of friends with whom I attended the show.
A Flock of Seagulls - I Ran
Bow Wow Wow, We Are the ‘80s (Columbia/Legacy)
Known more for their hairstyles than their music, A Flock of Seagulls stumbled on the good fortune of timing. Although they were more new wave than new romantic, they somehow found themselves with the latter classification. They benefited from heavy-rotation exposure because of the fledgling MTV’s lack of videos to play and the popularity of new romantic icons Duran Duran. Of course, A Flock of Seagulls weren’t a very good new wave or new romantic band, and ultimately proved they had little to offer beyond a handful of minor synth pop trifles. Like many of the artists in this collection, A Flock of Seagulls have more compilations than proper albums. The one thing that sets the We Are the ‘80s collection apart is the “previously unavailable on CD” b-side, “Lost Control”. It’s not necessarily a great song, but it is a true rarity.
Bow Wow Wow - I Want Candy
Falling into that same one-hit-wonder, early-MTV-benefactor category is Bow Wow Wow and Scandal. The Sex Pistols’ step-child by way of Malcolm McLaren, Bow Wow Wow consisted of the Ants portion of Adam and the Ants, and Myant Myant Aye, rechristened Annabella Lwin by McLaren. Their single song of note is their classic cover of the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy”, which is of course included on this collection. There is nothing else here to pull in the enthusiast, but the brevity of the album (14 tracks clocking in at just over 40 minutes) lends itself nicely to Bow Wow Wow’s sound: An African percussion-heavy rhythm and Lwin’s clipped delivery.
Scandal, We Are the ‘80s (Columbia/Legacy)
Like a lot of artists of the early ‘80s, Scandal were as much pop/rock as new wave. Their MTV hits, “Goodbye to You” and “The Warrior”, could easily fall into either category. And they’re the only songs the casual fan is going to recognize or care to own. On the plus side, Scandal is a group that actually was in need of a compilation, and their We Are the ‘80s entry fits that bill fine. It’s also the collection with the most enticements for the die-hards (assuming die-hard Scandal fans exist).
Scandal only put out one EP (never released on CD) and one album in their brief career together. The entire contents of that 1982 self-titled EP are recreated here, along with three additional songs from the same era that were previously unreleased. The collection is rounded out by the “never before on CD” b-side “All My Life” and five cuts from The Warrior long-player. The hits are a fun slice of ‘80s history, but everything else here carries the hallmarks of bad ‘80s music: rolling keyboard work by Paul Shaffer (yes, that Paul Shaffer), bad harmonies, and all the guitar posturing you can stand.
Scandal - Goodbye to You
The series’ packaging is as cheesy as the ‘80s. Solid backgrounds (a different color for each entry) with haloed soft photos of the artists in their heyday, complete with neon blue font. It screams tacky and is perfectly fitting.
Rock, pop, and new wave are all represented in the first wave of We Are the ‘80s discs, but how much these particular performers actually represent the decade is debatable. For the most part, these are artists whose major impact could be found on early MTV, and, as a result, there are some one hit wonder contenders here.
That the ‘80s have been repackaged and resold by the Boomers to the Millennials seems appropriate in so many ways. A torch-passing from the yuppie generation by way of their corporate strongholds, it’s only right that they would mostly select such style-over-substance artists. The saddest part is that when peeking beneath the surface, you realize the repackaging doesn’t even really seem to have been done out of admiration, but rather purely out of commerce. Gordon Gecko would be proud.
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"History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats. Keep your finger on important issues, and keep listening to the 275th most acclaimed album of all time. A 1982 masterpiece is this week's Counterbalance.