Sunday, April 12, 2009

Some 1980s Music Worth Revisiting

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Here are a half dozen songs of differing styles that are worthy of remembering, in a period when much of the mainstream music was somewhat lame. They all emerged in the 1980s, either populist somewhere in the world, cult figures, or who-the-hell? Enjoy, and feel free to add some of your own in the comments.

Hayzee FantayzeeShiny Shiny
Honestly, I was not a fan of this style, made more famous by Boy George and his ilk, but HF predates the Jail Boy, who claimed their fashion as his. Led by the exceedingly tall and lanky Jeremy Healy and Kate Garner (I met her once and she was at least a head taller than me), their sound was a mix of pop, reggae and quirk. They also had a hit in their native UK with “John Wayne is Big Leggy,” but I prefer this one, followed by “Sister Friction.” Video prodcer Alan Abramowitz was duly impressed at the time with this particular video and its uise of “wipes,” cutting edge at the time.

Mari WilsonBeware Boyfriend
Mari Wilson is, musically, what Lilly Allen is trying to be, but failing (despite the latter’s success), and her hair, I’m sure, inspired the rattrap of Amy Wino (who also owes a huge debt to Wilson’s vocal style). Wilson’s blousy blue-eyed soul is engaging, making one want to waves their arms in the air along with the song. There is actually a very funny video that does along with this, but this one is the best I could find. Much more appreciated in her native UK at the time, Wilson just had the right sound at the wrong time. She deserves better.

[Richard Barone, of the Bongos, at the Peppermint Lounge]
The BongosNumber with Wings
Out of Hoboken, NJ, and the first band to play at Maxwell’s (in an early incarnation), the Bongos were (and occasionally are during semi-frequent reunions) a pop cult hit, as much as cult bands can be. The two men at the front of the group, Richard Barone and James Mastro, are both still local heroes for both their work in this band and as solo artists. Another member of the group, Rob Norris, had been in a nascent version of the A-Bones called the Zantees (which is where I first became aware of him). I saw the Bongos play a couple of times just before their heyday, and they were a fun band to watch. What is the meaning of this song is anyone’s guess, but I just enjoy it for the ride.

Rachel SweetPlease Mr. Jailer
Rachel SweetThen He Kissed Me/Be My Baby
Even though Rachel Sweet was at one point signed to a couple of major labels, Stiff and Columbia, she definitely was not given the credit due, even though she did have one hit with “Everlasting Love,” co-shared with Rex Smith. Like Brenda Lee, she was short and had a voice one could hear a mile away without a mic. And unlike many belters, such as Celine Dion or Kelly Clarkson, Rachel had subtlety in her unique and beautiful voice. While she did the theme to the John Waters’ film Hairspray and had a minor hit with “Voodoo,” I picked two of my favorites of hers that I feel give a feel to what is so attractive about her style. First, is from another Waters’ film, Cry Baby, where she did a Marnie Nixon for Amy Locane, blasting through this powerful blues number, “Please Mr. Jailer.” The second song actually earlier than “Jailer,” and is a medley cover of the girl group classics “Then He Kissed Me” and “Be My Baby.” While the sound quality of the video is off, it shows the range of her voice from soft and sexy to brash and sexy.

CheepskatesRun Better Run
Without giving any measure to quality or rank of order, during the early ‘80s there were two strata of post-garage bands that would play in New York. The first included bands like the Chesterfield Kings, the Vipers, the Lyres, and the Fuzztones. The second included the likes of the Tryfles, the Outta Place, and the Cheepskates. Of all those bands, the Cheepskates, led by Shane Flaubert, was the most pop-oriented, but lost none of the ‘60s garage sound, thanks to Shane’s excellent farfisa skills. The rest of the band was great, as well. Plus, the drummer then came from my neighborhood and in fact we attended the same high school (but years apart). It was always a pleasure seeing them play. This particular song is arguably their grandest moment. As far as I know, there is no “official” video for it (though the entire song was captured live and shown on Videowave for a garage special, but has not been digitized yet). The clip here is from a later period and well short of complete, but it gives a idea of the strong and hypnotic pull of the song.

[Julie, vocalist of Ja Ja Ja, on the set of Videowave]
Ja Ja JaI Am an Animal
I cannot hope to explain the appeal of this song to me; perhaps it is the indie underdog-ness or the sheer cheesiness, but from the first time I saw this after I met the singer when she was interviewed on Videowave, it has stuck with me. The costumes, the sets, the effects, they all come out like a $3 bad dream, and I won’t even begin to go into the hip-hop middle, but the opening lyrics are enjoyable (“I watch the other animals who think they’re not / They look 2:00 / To know if they’re hungry / They’re acting like robots / And because I’m not / They’re getting angry”), Julie’s voice is childlike in a positive way to me, and, well, it’s just so freakin’ weird! This is the only thing I have every heard by Ja Ja Ja.

X-TeensChange Gotta Come
For an indie band in the early '80s, this video was quite the production. True, the song has absolutely nothing to do with the video, but in those days, the door was wide open and anything was possible. Strongly influenced by films like (and especially) Raiders of the Lost Ark, the band seems to be having a lot of fun acting out some fantasy sequences, searching for the "Speilberg" stone. While I have the album this song came from, I have no idea what happened to the band. One can't help but enjoy this, even with it's hippie-esque, Reagan-era question, "Whatever happened to the love generation?"

Other worthy songs that I would like to add, but cannot find the videos:
Lenny Kaye Connection: I Got a Right
Billy & the Buttons: Whole Fam Damly

This column is dedicated to ‘80's video fan, Alex’s Bookbag.


  1. Except for Rachel Sweet werent these videos exposed to the bogger Via my Program "Videowave"?

  2. Most likely, Alan. Oh, and nice self plug. Though for those who don't know, Alan Abramowitz is the producer/creator of one of the better cable access shows, Videowave, which is worth checking out. You can find information and clips from the show on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, etc. Or, just put "Videowave" and "Abramowitz" in a search engine.