Saturday, June 17, 2017
Various Artists - Sharp Cuts (1980)
The line between good and bad sometimes starts to blur when music recedes into the past. Case in point: This multi-artist collection of new wave acts.
Sharp Cuts, which was subtitled "new music from American bands," was considered a disappointment when it was released in 1980 on producer Richard Perry's vanity label, Planet Records. The review in Trouser Press magazine stated "...this album makes the underground scene seem dead, unoriginal, and dreadfully behind the times." It's definitely not as good as a lot of other compilations of the time, such as 415 Music, which I ripped and posted last year.
Not surprisingly, Sharp Cuts has never come out on CD. This is a high-quality rip from my own mint vinyl copy, replete with cover and label scans, (as well as a scan of the Trouser Press review). Before doing this rip last week, I hadn't played this record in decades. Listening to it again was like being transported back in time. It's not great by any stretch, but it's a lot more interesting now than it was way back when. Why? Because it offers a unique glimpse into a long-gone era -- one that's untainted by memories, since most of these songs were never played on the radio.
The time period it covers is the one just before the dawn of MTV. It was the era of power pop, skinny ties, new wave, and post-punk. A time when rock music by white guys ruled the radio waves. Heck, the time when guys in general ruled the radio. In that sense, it doesn't just represent another time period, but another culture.
To digress a bit from the topic at hand, I've found the same goes for low-budget movies of the same time period: They seem to say more now than they did then. Back in the 1980s, teen flicks like "Hardbodies," "Party Camp," or (my all-time fave!) "The Malibu Bikini Shop" were looked upon as the cinematic equivalent of junk food. These days, they function as windows into our collective past and unwittingly provide insights into the way Americans used to interact and perceive the world. In some perverse way, those trashy films say more about our culture than blockbuster movies like "Top Gun," because their low budgets and hastily-written scripts assured a level of honesty you wouldn't get from big-time movies, where every line was approved by committee.
So it is with this record. The acts presented here weren't guided by record company executives, steering them into money-making trends. What you hear are the grass-roots efforts of a bunch of struggling musicians from various local scenes around the country. Most of the music here might not be brilliant, but this is what was bringing 'em into the clubs back then, so in that sense, it's an honest look at what working musicians were doing and thinking circa 1980.
So, we get founding Blondie member Gary Valentine unironically shouting "I Like Girls" with his band The Know. These days, that statement would bring with it all sorts of political ramifications, but back then it was taken at face value. The Willys (who?!) chime in with "She's Illegal" which I'm pretty sure is a song about jail-bait. This sort of thing was considered a source of humor back then, but would likely get a performer labeled as a "perv" today.
Suburban Lawns, as expected, are weirder than weird, and their track "Unable" packs a lot of angst into its short length. Peter Dayton (now a successful visual artist) chimes in with "Last Supper," a somewhat nihilistic track that seems to be about facing imminent death in the good ol' U.S.A.
Then there's the music itself. There are guitars. Lots of 'em. And old-fashioned analog synths. Without even listening to the words, these sonic elements evoke a feeling. At no other time in pop music would you have heard sounds like these.
OK, enough sociological pretentiousness. Here's are few notes on the tracks.
The version of Single Bullet Theory's "Keep It Tight" included here isn't the same one that became a #73 Hot 100 hit in 1983. This is an earlier version and (in my opinion) a much better one. It received airplay on album rock stations at the time, and seemed hit bound then, but wasn't. The dB's "Soul Kiss" has a different mix than the familiar one that was included as bonus track on CD editions of their first album. It also omits that squiggly opening guitar note.
And if the Billy Thermal number sounds familiar, that's because it was covered by Pat Benatar on her second LP, Crimes of Passion. Billy Thermal was the name of a group headed up by songwriter Billy Steinberg, who went on to co-write some of the biggest hits of the 1980s with partner Tom Kelly, including Madonna's "Like A Virgin." From what I can tell, this song marks his first foray into the music industry.
Various Artists - 415 Music (1980)
Various Artists - The 98 Rock Album (1978)
Various Artists - WKTK Presents Baltimore's Best Rock (1978)
1. Single Bullet Theory - Keep It Tight
2. Billy Thermal - I'm Gonna Follow You
3. Bates Motel - Live Among The Dancers
4. Peter Dayton - Last Supper
5. The Alleycats - Black Haired Girl
6. The Know - I Like Girls
7. The Willys - She's Illegal
8. The Fast - Kids Just Wanna Dance
9. The dB's - Soul Kiss
10. Suburban Lawns - Unable