I grew up in a home where music was listened to and talked about on a regular basis. Most of this had to do with my dad. My father began his collegiate career at the New England Conservatory of Music (he played trombone and baritone horn) before deciding to pursue his love of American Literature full-time as a teacher. That said, he remained a working musician for most of his adult life, at least until Parkinson’s Disease took the ability to play away from him. He was a “trombone-for-hire” for most of that time. Need somebody on short notice to play in your “big band” anywhere in the Northeast? My dad was the guy to call. He played with the orchestras of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey, and on several occasions with drummer/crazy person Buddy Rich. So while my childhood years were full of Elvis and the Platters (thanks, Mom!), they were also full of Dizzy Gillespie, Al Hirt, etc.- as well as the big band jazz mentioned above.
The other big influence came via my aunt, who had gone off to teach in Mexico and then Australia (where she still lives today) leaving all of her records behind in her bedroom at my grandmothers’ house. I took them all- what was she going to do about it?!- but I only really listened to the Beatles and Beach Boys albums she had. It’s important to note that in both cases these records were from the “pre-hippy” periods of both bands. The “newest” Beatles album she had was Revolver (1966) and the newest Beach Boys album was Shut Down Volume 2 (1964). If you know your music history you’ll know that both groups spent most of their early years covering and/or ripping off Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, etc., all of whom I came to love through the music of these two groups. By the way, the subtext here is don’t talk to me about Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds.
With this as my foundation I apparently decided- at age 11- that I was going to spend some of my own money on a record of my own rather than listening to those that my parents had purchased or that I had
stolen borrowed from my aunt. I have no memory of where I bought this record, but it was probably one of the places on this list: Zayre’s, Bradley’s, Mammoth Mart, K-Mart, or Grant’s.
I don’t know what prompted me to select this yearly compilation put out by the K-Tel Corporation (this is what we had before Now That’s What I Call Music! existed). I have no recollection of hearing any of the music before buying it. I have no recollection of seeing a television commercial for it (though there was one). No idea. Maybe I just thought the flashy cover art was nice! Just in case you’re wondering how long ago all of this was, I could have gotten it on 8-track. Let’s take a look at what I got for my money!
“Cars” by Gary Numan
Didn’t like it then, don’t like it now, couldn’t name a single other song he released. This song makes the Devo of the same period sound soulful and emotional by comparison.
“Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders
I’ve never been a fan of the Pretenders (though I have limitless respect for what Chrissie Hynde achieved in the male-dominated world of music in the ’70s and ’80s), but this is a pretty perfect pop song without being a “cookie cutter” pop song- it doesn’t sound like anyone or anything else.
“Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘N’ The Tears
I had to go to Wikipedia and YouTube for this one- no memory, good or bad, of this song. Having heard it again after 37 years I can see why I completely forgot about it. Not even bad, just…bland.
“Cruel to Be Kind” by Nick Lowe
Another great pop song that has stood the test of time. Lowe also wrote “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?” which as covered- incredibly well- by Elvis Costello.
“Is She Really Going Out With Him?” by Joe Jackson
Yes, she is, and mainly because you failed at being a lightweight version of Elvis Costello and turned to making lightweight jazz-pop instead.
“Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar
She was cute and rocked (kinda…at least on this song) and I don’t think that was lost on the 11 year old me, though I’m sure I had no idea what any of my feelings about this meant!
“Call Me” by Blondie
There’s a reason this song went to Number One in the U.S. and stayed there for weeks. It also doubled-down on all of those feelings that “Heartbreaker” stirred up in an eleven year old boy. Maybe girls were so…gross.
“Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio?” by The Ramones
This isn’t even the real Ramones, the good Ramones, but it served as the portal that would eventually bring me to…THE RAMONES!! As a song, I know now that it is exactly what it was supposed to be, producer Phil Spector (who else?) highlighted the mid-60s pop chops that had always underpinned the group’s punk stance. It worked as a song, and End of the Century worked as an album, but within a year or two “pop” had returned to its rightful place in the background and the Ramones were a punk band again.
“My Sharona” by The Knack
Honestly, when I looked at the track listing for this album I was shocked that there weren’t more songs like this on it- disposable, one-off, new wave (which was very much the catch-desription for bands at this time) songs that made a big splash, kind of reminded you of another group (in this case, the Kinks…maybe?), and then were gone. I hate this song.
“I Want You To Want Me” by Cheap Trick
This was actually a live version of a song that the group released in 1977…and it even sounded dated then. Cheap Trick have never made any sense to me, they sound like they should have been releasing this music in the late-1960s to middling reviews and success. And yet, the group has been around for over 40 years and are somehow in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t get it.
“Hold On” by Ian Gomm
This is the “Driver’s Seat” of Side Two. Who? Ohh, he was in Brinsley Schwarz with Nick Lowe. Was that an ad agency? A legal firm? I’ll just leave you with this: I went to YouTube to watch a live performance of the song and the saxophone “fill” made me laugh out loud.
“One Way Or Another” by Blondie
This is on of those songs, like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” that people have completely misinterpreted the meaning of but that still became a hit. Kind of impressive when you think about it that way. Like the other Blondie song on this compilation, it has stood the test of time.
“We Live For Love” by Pat Benatar
As big as Pat Benatar was I didn’t really remember this song until I went to YouTube and watched/listened to it. I came away with two thoughts: First, Debbie Harry should have sued her- a complete Blondie rip-off (which is not to say it’s bad) and second, everyone in the live video is rocking WAY harder than the song is!
“Pop Muzik by M”
That this song went to Number One in 10 countries from the U.S. to South Africa is an indictment of our civilization. It should be buried in the same shallow grave by the side of the road with “Tainted Love,” “Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Come On Eileen,” and “Mickey.”
What Does It All Mean?
I guess the first thing is that I feel pretty good about my 11 year old self because I expected it to be worse overall. Much worse. Yes, there’s some absolute garbage- the Knack, M, Gary Numan- and there’s even more that’s inoffensive and/or forgettable- Iam Gomm, Joe Jackson, Sniff ‘N’ The Tears (though that may be one of the worst band names ever)- but there’s other stuff that’s important and/or good.
As I said, I’ve never been a fan of the Pretenders music (I don’t hate it either!), but they as a group and Chrissie Hynde as an individual were fundamentally important to the music of the time and that followed- at least the kind that I listen to. The Pretenders, like some of the other acts on this compilation were the musical equivalent of putting my big toe in the water of punk and post-punk.
The same goes for Blondie. It wasn’t punk, but it was…something different than what was saturating the airwaves circa 1980. “Arena Rock” (Styx, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, etc.) and terrible disco-tinged pop music still had a death grip on American music,* but there was something about groups like Blondie that made me want to know more about what else was out there behind the scenes, below the scenes. What wasn’t I hearing on the radio?
*if you think I’m exaggerating at all look at this list of the top 100 singles in the U.S. in 1980.
Turns out, I wasn’t hearing this: