Monthly Mixtape: September 2016
1. A Flock of Seagulls -“(It’s Not Me) Talking”
A Flock of Seagulls were way ahead of their time with “(It’s Not Me) Talking.” The 1981 song is about technology—specifically computers—overtaking humans and making contact with extraterrestrials. Vocalist Mike Score’s signature monotone is laid over keyboard-heavy music to create a robotic effect that while not great to listen to, is thematically on point. This commitment to the subject is so very ’80s it hurts.
2. Planet P – “Why Me”
Tony Carey had been the keyboardist for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in the late ‘70s, and by the early ‘80s was a very prolific solo artist with hits such as “Fine, Fine Day” and “First Day of Summer.” Planet P was the outlet for his sci-fi and progressive rock ideas. “Why Me” is a darkly melodic, synth-heavy track with the unusual premise of an astronaut having second thoughts about his impending space voyage. There’s an ambiguity in the lyrics—the astronaut may be going through with the launch just to impress a girl or maybe he’s being sent into orbit against his will. That sounds a bit goofy on paper, but it’s a testament to the song’s strength that it ultimately succeeds as a work about fear and isolation.
3. Sigue Sputnik – “Love Missile F1-11”
One of the best Suicide rip-offs ever written and certainly one of the most successful, “Love Missile F1-11” translates those influential NYC bohos’ austere sound into peppy if slightly paranoid pop. While Alan Vega and Martin Rev came across as people you would not want to fuck with if you saw them on the street, the boys in Sigue just come across like they’re slamming back a few beers and fucking around with a sequencer. It’s almost endearing.
4. Madonna – “Burning Up”
While Madonna has never really let us forget her, it’s nice to look back on a simpler time when Madge favored fingerless gloves and crucifix earrings. “Burning Up” is one of her best because it’s damn catchy and the music video is a cinematic masterpiece. Madonna sings about a guy who’s raising her temperature while floating solo in a row boat. There are also lasers and strange close-ups of her eyes every fifteen seconds to hold your attention. Aside from the visual stimulation, “Burning Up” is Madonna at her best and well worth a listen in 2016.
5. George Michael – “Father Figure”
Though “Father Figure” was a smash in its day, it’s not quite the household name it could be. Its strangeness and chilliness probably has a lot to do with it. It’s a miasmatic fortress of solitude, its tenderness counteracted by its ominous keys and glacial pace. While Michael Jackson and even George Michael’s wonderful former band Wham! are still pillars of the drunk-singalong canon, this song would probably depress the shit out of most people hearing it in a bar.
6. Sandy Stewart – “Saddest Victory”
This sounds like a Stevie Nicks song, and that’s no surprise because Sandy Stewart was a big part of Nicks’ Wild Heart on which she sang backup, played keyboards and co-wrote several tracks. “Saddest Victory” was on Cat Dancer, Stewart’s thus-far only solo album, and it remains one of those songs for which there’s no good explanation as to why it didn’t make a bigger splash. It has good hooks, a video featuring Stewart’s MTV-friendly attractiveness and she had an appealing voice and the right connections. A regrouping with guitarist and partner David Munday under the name Blue Yonder in 1987 hardly registered, though she had success that same year as co-writer of Fleetwood Mac’s mega-hit “Seven Wonders.”
7. Level 42 – “Something About You”
Unless you’re a closet Level 42 superfan or play a lot of Grand Theft Auto, chances are you haven’t heard “Something About You” in quite some time. If ever. You may be surprised to learn that this gem was number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985, but you really shouldn’t be. The easy, danceable melody and incredibly vague and often nonsensical lyrics make for one hell of an ’80s hit. It’s three minutes and 43 seconds of senseless bliss as vocalist Mark King tries to put his finger on the one thing that makes this girl interesting to him.
8. Scritti Politti – “Perfect Way”
One of the strangest and best ‘80s pop bands, Scritti Politti evolved from their Marxist punk roots into a soul-powered hit machine led by the magnificently oily voice of Green Gartside. Cupid & Psyche ’85 is a great album through and through, but Scritti Politti will probably forever be remembered for their bubblegummy Top 20 hit “Perfect Way.” Believe it or not, Miles Davis even made this song a staple of his repertoire late in his career, arguing it could be a standard just as easily as the old Broadway ballads he spent so much of his career deconstructing.
9. Tane Cain – “Holdin’ On”
More lasers! If you ever wanted a super close shot of Tane Cain staring into your soul like she may try to suck out your life force, then this is the music video for you. “Holdin’ On” made it to number 37 on the US singles chart in 1982 and it’s not hard to see why. Cain sings forlornly about being abandoned by her love, but reassures us that she intends to hold on. The chorus is catchy and Cain sweeps you up into her emotional state with each belted “holdin’ on.” She only had two singles before she left the music business to star in a series of pornos, but “Holdin’ On” can hold its own against the best of the forgotten hits of the ’80s.
10. David & David – “Swallowed by the Cracks”
“Swallowed by the Cracks,” the second single from David & David’s left-field hit Boomtown is in many ways a companion piece to Bruce Springsteen’s then-recent “Glory Days” single—just with all the “Springsteen-esque” romanticism stripped out of this portrait of everyday people who never achieved their dreams and whose best days are behind them. The upbeat music contrasts with the downbeat theme and the song has dated quite well, relatively unsaddled by ‘80s production values.
11. The Smithereens (with Suzanne Vega) – “In a Lonely Place”
Another song that’s aged well is this unlikely single from the Smithereen’s debut Especially for You, the album known for “Blood and Roses.” An insular lament replete with jazzy vibraphone and a bossa nova beat, it was inspired by (and borrows some lines from) the 1950 film noir In a Lonely Place, starring Humphrey Bogart. Vega’s backing vocals are plaintive, yet cool and soothing like a late, quiet night, reminding us that there’s a million stories in the naked city.
12. Bronski Beat – “It Ain’t Necessarily So”
This underrated British band is best known for its heartbreaking runaway ballad “Smalltown Boy,” but its sly cover of George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” deserves mention. For one, its fusion of Broadway jazz with synthpop is seamless. Secondly, its lyrics—originally used by the drug dealer in Porgy & Bess to justify his life of crime—are more poignant in the context of the band’s queerness. In an age where “religious freedom” is used to justify egregious acts of hate, the message that the words in the Bible “ain’t necessarily so” feels hopeful.