Wednesday, April 4, 2012

They coulda been contenders: memorable and infernally catchy also-ran pop tunes

Since I’m on the topic of YouTube frustration (see below), I want to put the spotlight on a YT poster who has done exemplary work sharing his pop-culture obsessions. He's also had some trouble with copyright holders that don’t wanna *release* the material in question, but don't want anyone hearing it in the meantime. I bring you one music lover’s picks of the pop songs “that should have been bigger hits.”

The poster in question, who calls himself nccvball, has done a wonderful job of assembling medleys of music from the years 1968-89. The only overriding theme is that all of the songs included in the medleys made the Top 100 but never became major hits (although I can attest to the fact that some did have heavy-duty airplay in many markets).

The poster — who, for the lack of any simple-sounding moniker, I shall refer to as “nccvball” — puts historical data about the songs and artists onscreen as the songs are playing. He hails from Philadelphia and possesses a detailed knowledge of both the American and Canadian charts (his well-researched info refers to [gasp!] print-pubs, like the one to the right). He has informed me that the project began as an article he was writing about pop songs that should have gone further up the charts. Given the incredible detail he’s put into these videos, I’d suggest he join us here in the Blogspot sphere, since BS does indeed house some seriously devoted pop-culture fans.

I stumbled upon his YT channel several weeks back and was delighted to hear several songs I hadn’t heard in three decades. The first was "New York City," a tune that got played on the radio here in NYC in the year it came out (1979) and was included in a radio promo for a few years afterward. The tune has been engrained in my brainpan for a long time, and yet I had no idea who recorded it.

Turns out it was Canadian musician Walter Zwol, who had previously had a successful band named Brutus. Our friend nccvball has put up a video for the studio version of the tune and also has uploaded this wonderful clip of Zwol singing the song on a German TV program where the audience seems utterly distant (no dancing for these young folk!). He does his damndest, though, dancing up a storm and trying to sell the song, as the young Germans regard him with mild tolerance. It’s quite a catchy anthem:

Another skull-crusher for me was a power-pop song from 1980 by the band Spider. It’s called “New Romance (It’s a Mystery),” and the song was another one I hadn’t heard since the early Eighties, but which I knew by heart.

Nccvball’s video notes explain that Spider was led by Anton Fig (the drummer in Paul Schaffer’s band on Letterman) and his then-wife, vocalist Amanda Blue. The song was written by the band’s keyboardist, Holly Knight, who went on to write, among others, “Better Be Good to Me” for Tina Turner and “Rag Doll” for Aerosmith.

This is power-pop at its hookiest, and I’m glad I had it shaken loose from the recesses of my memory. For one time, and one time only, I will switch off in this entry from nccv’s account (where he posted this video for the song) to link you to the official music video (which I have absolutely no memory of) that was uploaded after nccv started his “excavation” of lost pop-rock:

While I’m grateful to nccv for uploading the Zwol and Spider vids, the major “rabbit-hole” he has created on YT is a series of videos detailing songs that “should have been bigger hits” in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. The videos cover the years ’68-’89, and there are generally anywhere from 10-15 tunes per 10-minute video. As a verse or two and the chorus play, onscreen info contextualizes the song and the artist.

The videos offer terrific windows into what styles of music reigned from the Nixon era through the Reagan era in the U.S. Our poster friend has put an incredible amount of work into the videos, and they are all worth your time, but I will note that I found the medleys from the Seventies and early Eighties to be filled with really fun, memorable stuff, while the late Eighties songs seemed feebler in comparison.

Perhaps this is just a reflection of my own memories from the periods involved — nccvball is a gent in his 30s, so perhaps he looks at the more recent eras of pop with a less jaundiced eye than I do. Or maybe there was indeed a certain kind of pop craftsmanship that began to wane in the post-MTV period.

In any case, his videos do a valuable service of unearthing songs that were “buried” decades ago and are dim memories to those who were alive and listening to FM radio regularly during the periods in question. Given his “devotion to the cause” and free labor, it was almost certain that the copyright holders, who in most cases haven’t done anything with the music in question since it was initially released, would see fit to either have his videos blocked or “muted” on YT. The companies in question are the usual suspects — WMG, UMG, EMI, SME — and they are incredibly short-sighted, since nccv is actually shining a light on their “dead” product.

Be that as it may (and, as Steve Allen used to say, I doubt it ever was), I want to offer up some links to the wonderful and labor-intensive vids put up by nccv. Prepare to be assaulted by at least a few brainworms (and maybe a few memories) in the process. The 1973 medley includes Andy Pratt’s “Avenging Annie” (first time I ever heard “fuck” in a song as a kid — and Pratt is now an Christian musician! ), Michael Redway (who did the uncredited Viv Stanshall-esque vocals on the Casino Royale closing theme), and the Incredible Bongo Band for some “Bongo Rock.”

In the 1974 entry, we hear the unforgettably catchy “Captain Howdy” by Simon Stokes, the prefab group First Class (actually studio singers Tony Burrows and Chas Mills), the terrific Oscar Brown Jr. singing his “Lone Ranger” tune, and a song I identify with the Smothers Brothers (who sang it every week on their Seventies comeback show), Rick Cunha’s “The Yo-Yo Man.”

I jump ahead a few years to 1976 for nccv spotlighting tracks by the Tubes, the ever-awesome Suzi Quatro, Penny McLean (from Silver Convention) and her single “Lady Bump” (no comment), and, yes, the Hudson Brothers.

The 1980 medley deserves a listen, if only for the wonderment that was the Flying Lizards' “Money” (which I heard on the radio ALL the time at that point but apparently wasn’t a big seller, despite schlubs like me shelling out for the 45).

If you want to hear a song that could’ve only existed in the early Eighties, try the 1983 medley for one of my forgotten faves, Robert Hazard’s deadly serious/wonderfully ridiculous statement about mankind, “The Escalator of Life” (“we’re shopping in the human mall” — don’t ask, seriously…).

I close off the quick-links with the 1985 medley, which includes Bruce Cockburn’s awesome “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and the 1986 medley, which has the ultimate mind-melting brainworm (just you try and forget the friggin’ thing!), Opus’s dubiously philosophical “Live is Life.”

Now we get to the serious stuff, the video comps from nccvball (no, I have no idea what the nick means) that did literally send sparks flyin’ outta my ears. First off is the transitional year of 1970, when bubblegum ruled the airwaves simultaneously with hard rock and funk. Among the acts spotlighted here are Klowns (a Ringling Bros. tie-in act groomed by Jeff Barry that featured a young Barry Bostwick!), super-pop from the duo Dunn and McCashin, rock from Ten Wheel Drive (with vocalist Genya Ravan), a pre-“Joko” Elephant’s Memory, and a Jake Holmes song that I know by heart (but from a Helen Schneider cover).

Even more importantly: the big “show-stopper” from a movie that few folks have seen (but WAS featured on the Funhouse), The Phynx!!! As a closer, the inimitable Serge and Jane (if you need last names, go and thoroughly immerse yourself in Gainsbourg’s brilliant music).

Another banner year in these compilations is 1971. Forgotten songs by the post-Monkees Mike Nesmith and Davy Jones, hits from future stars Stoney and Meatloaf (well, one became a star…), a great-sounding horn-drive band called “The Mob,” some hardcore bubblegum from Billy Sans, and variant versions of early Seventies hits “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” and “Mammy Blue.” All this, and a Ron Dante song called “Hot Pants,” too.

The compilation for 1972 features two acts I know nothing about, Bill Chase (a jazzman who has done wonderful work with horns and electronics music) and Bang (a group that boasted a raunchy guitar sound).

Also included in this medley are the National Lampoon (I LOVE “Deteriorata,” with Norman Rose and Melissa Manchester on vocals; Christopher Guest was the composer). Nccv has also put the spotlight on two commercial tie-in acts, “the Rock Flowers” (intended to sell a line of dolls to little girls), singing songs by Ellie Greenwich, Toni Wine, and Carole Bayer Sager, and the fucking Sugar Bears (yes, a tie-in studio act intended to sell the cereal) featuring Mike Settle from the New Christy Minstrels and Kim Carnes as singers.

One of the most entertaining collections is a group of instrumentals from 1976. Included is Michel Polnareff’s catchy theme for the film Lipstick,, Bob Crewe’s attempt at disco, and a tune from Gary Glitter’s back-up group the Glitter Band. Also present are three tunes I do vividly remember, Hagood Hardy’s mellow “The Homecoming,” John Handy’s irrestible “Hard Work,” and Walter Murphy’s “Flight ’76.”

As the Seventies ended, the music mix on the pop charts got even stranger. The 1978 medley features the hard-rock band Angel (the anti-KISS act, with a very catchy tune), Canadian diehards Chilliwack, Zwol’s “New York City,” AND the completely unforgettable “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand (which, to my aging “new wave” ears, should have been a hit for five years).

The 1979 compilation features a number of names I knew primarily from spending sifting through cutout bins in the early Eighties: Moon Martin, Charlie, Pousette-Dart Band. Also appearing here are Cherie and Marie Currie, and my own pick for the best coulda/woulda/shoulda hit for that year, “Mirror Star” by the Fabulous Poodles.

I include the 1982 compilation here because our YT-poster friend put as much work into it as all the others, but because it feature two *indelible* tunes, the Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” (which was everywhere on NYC radio at that time, but which I guess didn’t hit the Top 40) and the Monroes' scarily catchy “What Do All The People Know?”

As noted above, I think the late Eighties signaled a serious fragmenting of the music industry (and this was several years before the Internet began its true downward spiral). There were still infernally catchy pop tunes, but pop-rock production across the board just wasn't as exciting as it used to be (a function, no doubt, of the use of rampant sampling and computer "polishing" techniques).

In any case, out of all his medleys, the last nccvball creation I loved (in chronological fashion) was the one for 1984. Included are “the Coyote Sisters” (Leah Kunkel and friends), Naked Eyes, and Martha and the Muffins under the revamped name “M+M” (the music video for “Black Stations, White Stations” was on a late-night syndie show that reran seemingly indefinitely in the mid-Eighties).

There is no better place to end a discussion of pop music than with a mention of producer extraordinaire Jim Steinman, whose work contains the very essence of pop music. Spector-like in its production, Wagnerian in its sincerity, Steinman is the real deal, a pop songwriter who works from the hook outwards. Thus, I welcomed nccvball’s inclusion here of Steinman’s studio creation Fire, Inc. doing the SUPER-melodramatic “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young” from the soundtrack of the colorful near-future action flick Streets of Fire.

Nccvball has noted he has some Nineties comps in store, but I for one would very much welcome any more “lost” or hidden items from the Sixties and Seventies. For the only way to truly erase one brainworm is to replace it with another….

The fair use image comes from this very enlightening blog post.

1 comment:

nccvball said...

Ed, this is nccvball. Thanks again for highlighting the videos I created and posted on YouTube.

I thought I would share some of my favorite music "diamonds in the rough" that I have collected over the years. Songs that I believe are forgotten or simply lost.

I have more videos on the way, some continuing in the same vein but a few others with a different theme.

Unfortunately, YT's ever changing rules and guidelines can take the fun out of creating these types of videos. Add to that, one of the artists I highlighted a few years ago has decided he does not like new exposure and has banned his music from being used in any YT video. A video that included himself and other artists was taken down based on his request.

I hope you and your readers enjoyed the music and I plan to post new videos covering the 1990's in a few weeks.