Riverbank

This is kind of a grainy and poor sounding video, but it’s rare and interesting because it’s rare and interesting. John Cale at the piano is really one of the great underrated musical pleasures out there. I don’t know how much this performance will sell you on that, but if you do a little digging and listen to a record or two, you’ll know. Piano ballads can be a terrible genre; there’s something about those ivories that make people turn saccharine and maudlin and whiny, and balladeers who lean heavily on the piano tend to be all of those things. It takes a real iconoclast to make stately piano ballads sound punk as fuck, and John Cale is that man.

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Rapture

The popularity of rap music begins with Blondie in much the same way that the fashionable bindi traces its history all the way back to Gwen Stefani. That is, it doesn’t. At all. But, long and complex history of cultural appropriation aside, in 1981 it was a novelty song by a pop group named after the color of its singer’s hair that gave middle American viewers of MTV their first taste of a new and exciting musical style that was fomenting within the coastal, urban black community. “What is this cool new sound that cool people in New York City are listening to?” Bible-belt Americans asked themselves. “I must discover this Fab Five Freddy for myself, posthaste!” they said. While I doubt that hearing Debbie Harry rap about space aliens really did all that much to turn a generation of suburban white kids into Run DMC fans, the adage that it takes a blonde woman to get black culture’s foot in the mainstream door continues to hold true.

Purple Lips

His lips are purple because he is dead. It’s a fitting love song coming from Nico, who doesn’t do love songs. Nico was nearing the end of her life, and heavily weathered by hard living. She had renounced all glamour, and her music at this point was coming someplace so deep underground it was truly frightening. Once she had paid reluctant lip service to pop appeal, but towards the end she refused to compromise her dark vision, though she was sometimes bitterly angry that no accolades or money ever came her way. She was probably insane, or at least deeply disturbed. How she succeeded in making any records at all, after she allowed her life to revolve around heroin and music industry forgot her, is remarkable. Nico didn’t exactly flourish as an underground artist, but she scraped together a career and left behind a substantial legacy that remains important, at least to a handful of people with very bleak tastes. And, as the old guard continues to drop like flies, I can’t help but think that an artist such as Nico could never come along today. Today a weirdo with a vision would have the tools to support themselves without  traditional stuff like record contracts and press attention. But they would not have the tools to become that weirdo in the first place, because nobody is that isolated anymore. Nobody thinks of singing only to themselves.

Pull Up to the Bumper

Grace Jones

Grace Jones’ message has always been empowerment through sheer glamour. It’s an understatement to say she’s intimidating; she promises to demolish anyone who throws her shade, especially if it’s some weak-ass man. But she isn’t above a good dick metaphor, either. You can be queen of the street scene and the runway, but sometimes you still gotta cruise for it, ya know? Even Grace Jones is concerned with finding that perfect long black limousine. I suspect that Jones’ gay followers particularly enjoyed this ode to the cruising life, back when cruising was still a relatively harmless pastime. Jones certainly earned her place as gay icon; her gender-bending, aggressively self-assured take-no-shit persona is emblematic of the free-for-all sexual underground of the 1970’s.

Puff She Puff

Can anyone hazard a guess what this one is about? Black Uhuru have lot of songs of great political and social import, but this isn’t one of them. Sometimes you just have to celebrate the basic stuff, I guess, and if there’s one thing everybody likes about Rasta culture, well, you guessed it.

Pocket Calculator

We are all the operator now. We’ve beamed ourselves into the future with our pocket calculators and home computers. Yet we haven’t become a world of automatons who wear identical uniforms and dance poorly. Kraftwerk certainly set a template for how popular music would be created in the future, and how it would sound, but their ‘we are all robots now’ schtick is generic sci-fi.  That is, the idea that advancing technology would throw man’s soul into an endless feedback loop of alienation has been the scary story we tell ourselves ever since technology began to advance rapidly. So, at least since the Renaissance. More interesting is the idea, always contested and always proved true, that advancing technology actually leads the way to new highs for literature, music and art. New technology doesn’t make us more alienated; it gives us new options to express our ever-existing feelings of angst. If pre-industrial peoples seem to have been less alienated, it’s only because fewer of them were literate enough to write about it.

Planet Earth

These guys were real heartthrobs in their day, weren’t they? This is Duran Duran’s debut single and my, don’t they look yummacious? 1981 was just the mere beginning of the New Romantic movement (which is referenced in the lyrics) and Duran Duran was right on the razor’s edge. Looking pretty was always one of their main selling points, even to this day, but if they’ve managed to age surprisingly well, it’s because their songs still hold up without the frippery. This song is pretty dumb, as are most of their songs, but it’s got the magic of good pop, and it’s not the disposable kind. There are so many 80’s pop songs and acts whose appeal is mainly to allow us to gawk at how strangely different and goddamn long ago the 80’s were. Duran Duran has been one of the most enduring 80’s pop groups because you may gawk at their fashion choices, but their music is actually largely untainted by the worst trends of the time.