Archive for the ‘The ’80s’ Category

Far From Over: Manero’s Fight to Keep Staying Alive

February 3, 2010

Rarely has there been as drastic a shift in pop cultural aesthetics as that which transpired between the grainy, enfloralled 1970s and the sleek, vulcanized 1980s. Even more peculiar is the proximity between the key cultural events within that twenty year span. John Travolta has remarked that Saturday Night Fever – his Christmas 1977 star-making vehicle which ruled the box office throughout most of 1978 – was the movie which “gave the decade its cultural identity” (1); an alarming thought, considering how late that movie arrived into the decade. Nonetheless, by the time Travolta commenced with making a sequel in 1982, music and fashion had indeed changed, but the cultural ramifications of those changes were yet to be contextualized. Which begs the question: where did Travolta – the most iconic cultural figure before the great aesthetic shift – stand in the pop cultural paradigm following the shift?

The saga began with Saturday Night Fever, which centered around the artificial musical subculture known as disco; artificial in that disco was never so much the creative concept of musicians as it was the invention of producers, who combined the most arresting elements from various dance musics – latin, funk, boogie – into a populist hybrid, which swiftly overtook the Top 40 during the mid-70s and influenced many established acts like ABBA, Boz Scaggs and the Bee Gees. But contrary to common belief, Saturday Night Fever was not the apex of disco; it was the popular comeuppance of a form already in decline by late 1977. Much unloved by most rock enthusiasts, the ‘disco sucks’ campaign was already underway at the time of the movie’s release. Following the late-1978 career setbacks of those most associated with the movie – Travolta’s maligned Moment by Moment; the Bee Gees ill-advised big screen adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the anti-disco movement viciously redoubled, culminating with the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in July, 1979.

Despite the commercial triumph of Urban Cowboy (1980) and the critical acclaim of later cult-fave Blow Out (1981), Travolta’s status as a cultural pariah was already in effect by the close of the 1970s, with Robin Gibb even referring to him as “Revolta” in a May, 1979 Rolling Stone interview (2). Thus Travolta limped into the early 1980s, flanked by an anti-disco uproar and two box office flops; a predicament reflected in the earnest plea of Frank Stallone’s “Far From Over”, which served as the anthem to Staying Alive, the 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever. Granted, as hostile as the 1980-1982 period had been to the preceding disco era, the latter’s cultural enema status wouldn’t ossify until after the Second British Invasion of 1982/1983 – spawned by the emergence of MTV, which facilitated the stateside breakthrough of newfangled synthpop bands like Duran Duran and the Human League – whereupon the 1980s truly became ‘the 80s’ in the aesthetic sense. Therefore, Staying Alive was made during a limbo period where the public partook in ridicule of the disco era, but before people resolved to repress their collective memory of the 1970s entirely. Within this window, Tony Manero was allowed to step out and show the world just how much he had evolved in the five and a half years since he had last wowed us.

Manero made good on his wish at the close of Fever to escape Brooklyn and the thuggish mentality of his posse. He now lives in Manhattan, where he tends bar by night and teaches dance lessons by day. But he’s weary of futility; sliding into his late twenties wondering whether this is all he’ll ever amount to. There’s an unspoken moment which speaks volumes of the shifting times and Manero’s dilemma within them, and it occurs during a pause whilst tending bar. Noting the loud music and congested dance floor which fills the spacious club, Manero drifts off; his eyes floating past the neon-webbed walls (the 80s) and up to the mirror balls still hanging amongst the strobe lights from the ceiling (the 70s). He seems to come to the realization here of just how much times have changed since 1977, when he had danced his way to the top of what was then an intimate, exclusive club scene. Now it had become homogenized and trendy, with all the romance and spectacle of yore replaced by impersonal thumping devoid of grace or style; leaving revelers too engulfed in the swarm to notice anyone’s unique dancing skills. Once, the club scene was a breeding ground for talent, but now it was just a trap. The scene had taken Manero as far as it could; and yet he wanted to go further.

Buoyed in part by the modest dancing success of his tenuous romantic partner Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes), Manero embarks on an endless series of applications; spurned at every corner in his proposal to accept any gig that doesn’t involve nudity. Fortunes turn when he’s offered a chorus role in the same production involving Jackie and the divaesque Laura (Finola Hughes), the star of the show with whom he had briefly struck a fling. From here the film commences it strongest and weakest themes: the Rocky-like parable of career triumph, and the implausible lovelorn schizophrenia which entangles the three leads.

The interpersonal shenanigans are ill-synced with Manero’s career arc in this movie. He briefly scores with haughty Laura, only to lose her interest as soon as he scores his gig. Then Jackie draws the line; she’s more serious about relationships than he is, and so she’s now seriously ending things between them. But he cajoles Jackie into a subsequent ‘platonic’ date, only to woo her back in teary entreaty by night’s end. This makes for a cringe-inducing twist because it undermines Jackie’s constancy and places far flung expectancy on Manero’s resolve. He hasn’t ‘earned’ our trust as a reliable suitor, having repeatedly neglected Jackie in his attempts at further courting Laura. To further two-time on this latest reconciliation would go beyond the call of drama. Thankfully, there’s little subsequent development in the romantic department. He stays with Jackie and remains incommunicado with Laura, despite costarring with the latter in the climactic Satan’s Alley sequence. Nevertheless, he kisses Laura rather passionately during a romantic pause in their act, only to be fiercely rebuffed. This gives Jackie brief pause, but still the couple embraces at wrap-up before a stark-eyed Laura. Despite this reassurance, they hardly achieve the kind of romantic deliverance which audiences look for in idealized, onscreen lovers.

Manero’s professional triumph provides the most compelling theme for Staying Alive. He gets promoted from sideman to star, after the cast’s initial, presumably-gay pick for male lead proves too “mechanical” during rehearsals. Manero almost lets his pride get in the way, however, for things are very tense between him and costar Laura. It’s through the intervention of the show’s director that we learn some fundamentals of the theatrical profession. The director tersely clarifies to Manero that this role is the chance of a lifetime, and that he can maximize the situation by channeling all his conflicting emotions (passion, lust, anger) into the heart of his performance. Manero’s lesson here reflects what Travolta himself had learned in the midst of filming his own star-making vehicle a lustrum beforehand, when he was directed to channel his grief over the recent death of his lover, Diana Hyland, into the scope of his acting, resulting in what many believe to be his finest performance ever in Saturday Night Fever.

Onward, the climactic Satan’s Alley sequence proves spectacular, and the standing ovation which Manero receives whilst hoisting Laura above-head is truly awe inspiring. If they had saved his reconciliation with Jackie until after this performance, then the romantic thread would have seemed more appropriately integrated into the story. It would have also brought this movie even closer to the Rocky formula, which brings us to the director of Staying Alive, Sylvester Stallone.

The Sly’s involvement here precluded any repeat of the urban coarseness and vulgarity found in Saturday Night Fever. The filming of Staying Alive was even marked by conflict between star and director, with Stallone objecting to any raw cursing from the actors. Profanity may have been crucial in authenticating the first film’s portrayal of rough, urban teenagers, but Stallone insisted that Manero’s maturity could predicate the language control necessary to ensure a PG rating (3). The latter’s unorthodox narrative structure of despair/ambition/deliverance is replaced here too by the more populist, Rocky-like arc of action/conflict/triumph.

As for the music featured in Staying Alive, integration has less to do with dance sequences this time, as penman Frank Stallone appears in several scenes as guitarist and co-vocalist in a bar band fronted by Rhodes’ Jackie character. Their duets reflect the smooth, summery sounds of the West Coast soft rock style which ruled the airwaves during the gap between disco and synthpop. Unfortunately, several of these ‘songs’ are mere snippet pieces which don’t exist in full for the soundtrack LP, such as the promising “Waking Up” and “I Hope We Never Change”.

While Frank Stallone’s involvement was obviously down to family ties – and rather lucratively, with the blazing AOR of “Far From Over” climbing to number ten on the Billboard chart – the Bee Gees redux was merely arbitrary, with their five contributions spread sparingly as background filler in the movie. Having already absconded their high-pitched, Fever-era disco in favor of a newfangled, electro-dance pop style on 1981’s unjustly ignored Living Eyes LP, the Bee Gees stepped sideways here, regrouping from solo projects and backup gigs to provide serviceable if unmythic songs for Staying Alive. The best of these, “Someone Belonging to Someone”, is sequenced during the most poignant scene in the film, when Manero takes a long, reflective walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn donning his old white suit – updated with popped lapels, a lavender v-neck and straightened trousers – and passes the now-defunct 2001 Odyssey club in which the action of Fever was set (oh, how times have changed); ultimately arriving home to the only other reoccurring character from the first movie, his mother. The soundtrack to Staying Alive also provided the Bee Gees a minor commercial reprieve with the Top 30 placement of “The Woman In You”, propelled by a four-square, clavinet-like bass-line which almost seemed like an attempt at sounding retro-1977. The promo clip for that song, which features a colorfully outré Rhodes at the helm of a punked-out dance troupe, could even be viewed as a double-reference to the year of Fever.

Speaking of Fever, the epochal strut which opened that film is recapitulated at the close of Staying Alive, complete with the very tune which this time provided namesake. Though befitting in the thematic sense, it still seems trite. A Rocky-like ending, with Manero embracing Jackie in the throng of victory, would have been a far more compelling finale to this movie’s plotline. Whether it was damaging for a 1983 film to grace itself with what had already become a vaunted disco track is still up for conjecture. Nonetheless, Staying Alive did well at the box office, despite being roundly panned by critics. With this jump-start, Travolta further mimicked his banner year of 1978 during 1983 by reteaming with his Grease costar Olivia Newton-John for the amusing misfire Two of a Kind, before his decade-long expulsion to the cultural backwaters following 1985’s belabored Perfect. The 1980s had now settled into their skin, and the 1970s had ceased to be ridiculed, only to be ignored altogether. Despite his best efforts to stay hip, John Travolta would have to wait another decade in order to rise from the fleeting aura which the public had projected onto him.

(more…)

J Geils Band

October 18, 2008

Like Genesis, Hall & Oates, Kool & the Gang and REO Speedwagon, the J Geils Band had been cranking out albums since the wee years of the ’70s, yet only achieved a sustained commercial run at the dawn of the ’80s. Their lengthy ’70s discography can sound rather repetitive, for there’s admittedly only so much one can do with cartoon boogie. The band’s innovation, if any, was to inject more of a ’70s rock dynamic and compositional flexibility into an antiquated rock/pop/soul aesthetic indebted to the sounds of ’60s Detroit, especially Mitch Ryder. Their best studio albums from this period were Ladies Invited (1973), Nightmares…and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle (1974) and Monkey Island (1977).

Befittingly, the introduction of goofy New Wave elements into their sound (shades of The Cars and The Boomtown Rats) would usher in their greatest run of chart success, and their amusing videos for such ingratiating hits as “Love Stinks”, “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame” added to the myriad of wonderful lifelong memories that the golden age of MTV provided for its lucky viewers.

But what took them so long?

It was a common line throughout their first decade that the J Geils Band were ‘the greatest live act’, yet by now this was being leveled with the charge that their live prowess was the only thing they had going for them, and that they’d never mature into a sufficient studio act.

Incidentally, their contract was in jeopardy by the time they commenced with the Monkey Island sessions in 1977, and their fears of impending termination prompted a concerted effort towards creative, exploratory songcraft. And while it didn’t give them their desired commercial breakthrough, this fine album would nonetheless show that they were capable of producing more than just jukebox music for ‘funky retro diners’, and it appeased their coffers well enough to afford the band’s renewal. Intermittently, their 1978 Sanctuary album proved to be a step sideways rather than forward. But the fruits of their redoubled creative focus, in tandem with their unabated stage power, would ultimately sprout to the surface. For as Rolling Stone said in a 1980 article on the band, Love Stinks was making “more noise out of the box than any of their albums in years,” – the last point perhaps being a reference to their only prior (albeit minor) hit, “Must of Got Lost” in 1974.

ABC

October 16, 2008

As other folks discuss how they’re re-acquiring all the wonderful ’80s music that they foolishly ditched during the ’90s, and in-turn discarding all the rank ’90s trash which they now hope never to see, smell or hear again, the topic of lesser-heard ABC albums is raised:

Beauty Stab was a surprise for me back in the ’90s – that time-stain I survived in a rainbow loop of NuRo fashion and ’70s/’80s music – because I’d totally missed it earlier during my video-immersed youth. Seriously, I long thought that How to be a Zillionaire was ABC‘s second album, due to MTV having totally skipped this one. In any case, ABC‘s sophomoric effort comprised a solid set of songs that have grown on these ears with each successive play.

Esquire

October 12, 2008

Someone asked about another red-hot platter from the plentiful land of AOR.

The eponymous 1987 release from Esquire could possibly be the greatest album from the second half of the 1980s! Their sweepingly robust sound stood midway between contemporaneous Yes and Heart, but with better songwriting than either of those bands ever managed on any album after 1983. Esquire should have been huge; but then again, 1987 saw the proliferation of empty, tuneless hair metal and dance pop, against which the anthemic might of Esquire probably sounded too distracting.

Esquire – “To the Rescue”

Stadium Rock

October 4, 2008

Discussions have arisen concerning the renewed appeal of AOR, pomp rock and stadium rock, which has steadily grown as the self-effacing ironies of the misbegotten ’90s fade into the trash can of history, and people re-embrace dynamism and heroism from their performers. A recent thread on this phenomenon aroused the following enthusiasm from yours truly.

AOR/melodic rock and west coast/soft rock have become the areas of Anglophone music spanning the late ’70s through mid ’80s that I’m most enthused about now that I’m in my thirties. Funny enough, I hated this stuff in my teens when I was a full-fledged punk/new waver. Now I’ve mostly lost passion for the latter, save for the divine rarity of ‘pomp wave’ (The Stranglers, Ultravox, Magazine), the distinguished stylists of the NuRo/synthpop movement (John Foxx, Gary Numan, Dalek I) and the lifelong charms of the Second British Invasion. The more abrasive, amateurish and mopey purveyors of punk and post-punk (i.e. hardcore, alt. rock and anything produced by Martin Hannet) tend to really get on my nerves nowadays.

But onto some AOR…

Silver Shoes said: I always liked “Feel It Again” and “What Does It Take” [by the Honeymoon Suite].

Side one of Honeymoon Suite‘s 1985 The Big Prize LP is totally awesome, with “Bad Attitude” and “Lost and Found” lending further exhilarating blasts of Night Ranger-esque pomp rock superpower. Canuck contemporaries Glass Tiger were another great band of like-mind, forging a unique brand of martial-tinged pomp rock on their Thin Red Line LP, which they contrarily plugged with the two most uncharacteristic songs, “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” and “Someday”.

The Cure

August 2, 2008

I actually spent some time on the topic of the Cure… who would’ve ever thought?

Head On the Door (1985) is excellent, Three Imaginary Boys (1979) is really good and The Top (1984) is alright too. Amazingly, I also enjoy Seventeen Seconds (1980) despite that album’s similarity to one of my least favorite bands ever (hint: a dreary group of martyr-led Mancunians). The difference between The Cure and those other fog-mopers is that Smith and Co. played with sufficient tactility and didn’t sound as if they were suffering from carpel tunnel syndrome.

Back to the brilliant Head On the Door, the thing I really like with this one is how they jettisoned all their boring sub-Joy Divisionisms and instead re-embraced their hearty ’70s art rock lineage, paying due respect to The Stranglers on the fuzzy bass romp “Screw” (echoes of the classic Black and White LP), Gentle Giant on the xylophonic choppiness of “Six Different Ways” (think: “Give It Back”) and Dizrythmia-era Split Enz on “In Between Days” and “Sinking”, which respectively recall the likes of the strummy “Bold as Brass” and the submersibly key-soaked “Without a Doubt”.

A friend of yore once asserted, upon viewing my collection of Split Enz videos, that their 1977 clip for “Bold as Brass” was totally cribbed by The Cure for the latter’s 1985 clip of “In Between Days”. I can’t say I necessarily concur on that matter, but those were nonetheless pointed observations coming from such a die-hard Cure fan as himself.

(Originally posted on progressiveears.com)

Maximalism vs Minimalism

February 2, 2008

Debates have swirled around the task of tracing the prog rock lineage into the 1980s, with ragtag assortments of New Wave performers commonly thrown into the commotion. But honestly, there’s a definitive line between music that’s eclectic, lavish and complex in the maximalistic (i.e. progressive, or ‘arty’) manner, vs music that’s skeletal, abrasive and atonal in a minimalistic (i.e. alternative, or ‘art damaged’) way.

Maverick innovators like The Stranglers, Magazine, Random Hold, Gloria Mundi, Ultravox, Japan, The Tubeway Army and XTC have all been praised by discerning aficionados as ‘prog punk’ (or ‘progressive new wave’) because they brushed aside the minimalistic traits that were so de rigueur within post-punk confines, in favor of the maximalistic values more broadly revered across the preceding symphonic progressive and arty glam rock legions.

Elsewhere, bands like Joy Division, the Fall, Gang of Four, and various other North England purveyors of dissonant, low budget minimalism may have indeed made music that was difficult to listen to, hence an ‘alternative’ to the mainstream (in attitude, if nothing more.) But it didn’t make them ‘progressive’ in the musical sense, because they didn’t ‘progress’ within and build upon the inherently musical virtues of melody, harmony, rhythm and sonority. What they did instead was the exact opposite: transgressing said virtues unilaterally in their own cryptic thirst for some post-apocalyptic brand of noise – a punishing cul-de-sac, maybe, but by God ‘not’ the new tradition.

(I would have titled this post ‘Progressive vs Alternative’, if not for the word ‘alternative’ having become a most putrid pejorative.)

Anna Oxa: Superenigmatic Italian Diva

December 20, 2007

Yeah, I’d stumbled upon an album cover by her at one time or another, but I’d never been taken by the anomaly of her spectacle until now. After all, how many MOR divas can you name that toyed with a punk image as early as 1978?

Anna Oxa, 1978

Anna Oxa, 1978

  • Intervista Discoring 78
  • Or is that ‘punque’ (from the waist on up, anyway.) Alas, her stylists didn’t do enough research to know that flared trousers were in fact the aesthetic anathema to all true punks.

  • “Un’emozione da Poco”

  • Well in case you’ve had enough vulcanized gender transgressions for one day, I’ll assure you that the imposing, distaff maverick seen up above did in fact mutate into a wholesome young woman, most captivatingly so in this très sexy segment from 1982:

  • “Il No” Video (1982)
    Aah, I love the slow motion camerawork and soft lighting that glows upon her face.
  • That sultry slow motion delivery really was just totally befitting to that number, as this alternate clip further demonstrates:

  • “Il No” (1982)

  • Now as you rejuvenate, I’ll have you know that the surprises don’t end there, for the smooth as silk teddy bear from that last clip morphed yet again by the mid ’80s, this time into a sultry vixen. Here she sits resplendent in platinum perfection in this 1984 clip with Raffaella Carrà:

  • Oxa Pronto Raffaella 84
  • And here she performs in her newly perfected Monroe-esque glamour:

  • “Non Scendo” (1984)
  • “Eclissi Totale” (1984)

  • Later, as The Style Decade drew to a close, the genesis from humanoid to honey to heroine was complete, as seen in these aristocratically dressed-to-kill clips from 1988:

  • “Oltre la Montagna”
  • “E tutto un’attimo”
  • “Quando nasce un amore”
  • pronto è la rai oxa
  • pronto è la rai oxa 2
    (Caveat: I think she went a bit too far on the tweezing.)
  • golden-lady-anna-oxa-print2-orig1


    Apparently, our satin-legged, statuesque songstress also had a knack for comedy:

  • parole parole ….imitazione Anna Oxa, frantastico 9 ’88
  • love story presunta di fantastico 9 Oxa
  • I sure hope the following incident wasn’t real:

  • caduta dalla scale di fantastico 9

  • Oh well, in any case, it appears as though her heavenly legs (as well as her eyebrows) did indeed recover:

  • “Tu non ridi piu”
  • “Pensami per te”
  • Live Medley ’92
  • golden-lady-anna-oxa-poster-orig

    Huang Chung

    October 27, 2007

    Huang Chung (1982) is amongst several NuRo albums that I’ve added to my collection within the past year. I’d heretofore managed only a play or two in my overbooked listening time, but a recent progressiveears thread on Wang Chung prompted me to give a couple more attentive spins last night. True, an embryonic version of their later chart-bound signature “Dance Hall Days” is present, but more interesting here are the danceably angular “Ti Na Na” and the trebly, chorused riffage (echoes of “Run Like Hell”) in “China”. The rest sounded like serviceable if unassuming smooth pop, ala China Crisis or Talk Talk.

    Wang Chung – Ti Na Na (1982)

    Huang Chung – China (1982)

    A page for this oft-excepted title in the Wang Chung discography can be found here, along with some cool NuRo pics of the band:

    Fashion: The Style Decade

    September 25, 2007

    The 1980s spawned a colorful array of new styles, with visionaries in the worlds of music and fashion rising in direct relation to one another. As the decade advanced, it was the designers that made the greater cultural impact, with the likes of Anthony Price, Stephen Linard, Rachel Auburn and the milliner Stephen Jones moving from clubs to catwalks just as their musical counterparts (Boy George, Adam Ant, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet) were falling off the charts and airwaves.

    By contrast, the progressive era of 1969-1975 produced little talent in the realm of fashion, for it was not an age in which creativity as applied to costuming was encouraged or even understood, with the antiquated notion of ‘rawness over refinement’ condemning beauty to the cultural backwaters for longer than a lustrum. Granted, the hippy styles were a reaction towards the more constrictive modes of grooming which had preceded them, making the attendant slack drapery more an exercise in freedom itself than a vision of creative expression. And the musicians recognized these limitations, opting for elaborate, surreal artwork to front their visuals in lieu of their uncomely, hirsute selves. A revisit of GQ from this period reveals a void in which the model likeness of the fashion world was complimented by a scant few in the realm of pop, namely Bryan Ferry and David Bowie.

    One of the most liberating things about punk in the UK was that it spawned a rebirth in autonomous streetwear. But it wasn’t until the early 1980s – when a select coterie of budding stylists dressed the spunky punk motifs with regal embellishments – that London exerted it’s first major influence on the Paris runways since the mid ’60s, with the opulent luster and robust silhouette of the New Romantics forming the aesthetic catalyst for a bold new era, henceforth known as the Style Decade.