Pearl: 30 Years of Electric

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The Cult – Electric

Released April 6th, 1987 on Beggars Banquet

Electric is the sound of a band getting a taste of the high life and looking to sustain that immersion in success for as long as possible.  Originally named The Southern Death Cult (for both American and English reasons), the Ian Astbury-led band made their name with a couple of albums of post-punk that skewed heavily toward gothic rock.  When the single “She Sells Sanctuary” blew up, they started looking for ways to embed themselves further into the mainstream and all of the ridiculous amounts of money that were flowing through it in the 1980s.  As a result they listened to a bunch of old AC/DC records and hired Rick Rubin to oversee the whole thing.  At the time this was sort of a head-scratcher, as Rick Rubin, then as now, was best known for being a hip-hop producer (as well as Slayer, of course).  In hindsight it makes a lot of sense, though.  Rubin, a key driving force behind getting the Beastie Boys recorded, has always skewed more toward the hard rock end of things – his beat on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” was pure hardcore, after all, and he did honestly use a goddamn REO Speedwagon sample on the Marshall Mathers 2 LP.

So, with Rick Rubin at the helm, and some simple classic hard rock riffs under their belt, The Cult turned around and made…a slick, commercial hard rock album.  Sure, tipping your hat to Electric thirty years later feels like saying Jet was actually a pretty decent band, but there’s something about Electric that handles itself surprisingly well.  The only actual misstep here (and it’s a godawful one) is the croaking cover of “Born To Be Wild”, which feels like something a record label makes you tack on so you can at least get play on year-end compilations and movie soundtracks if all else failed.  Thankfully all else didn’t fail; “Love Removal Machine”, released on my fifth birthday, propelled the album to a chart berth that lasted 27 weeks and sold scads.  While it’s follow-up, 1989’s Sonic Temple, was a better all-around album, Electric tends to kick more ass.

Pearl: 30 Years of Sign ‘O’ The Times

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Prince – Sign ‘O’ The Times

Released March 31st, 1987 on Paisley Park and Warner Bros. Records

RYM: #300

BestEverAlbums: #251

Sign ‘O’ The Times was Prince’s first album after the breakup of The Revolution, and came in the middle of a sort of creative free-for-all.  At the time of the Revolution’s demise, Prince had been working on a Revolution album (Dream Factory) as well as a solo album, Camille, which featured sped-up vocals and an androgynous new persona (named after the album’s title).  After a flurry of activity, recording, and the breakup of the Revolution, Prince had the idea to release all of the above in a 3-LP set called Crystal Ball.  Warner Bros. said no, because they have no sense of humour.

 

Instead, Prince culled down his recordings and released a double-LP set, solo, called Sign ‘O’ The Times.  The album drew in large amounts from both cancelled records.  “Housequake”, “Strange Relationship”, “U Got The Look”, and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” come from Camille and all bear the squeaky, sped-up vocals that Prince was experimenting with on those recordings.  “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “Starfish And Coffee” were part of the Dream Factory recordings right from the original demos.  In lesser hands, such a hodgepodge of components would have ended up as a gigantic mess, a hymn to overreaching ambition.  Prince, though, comes across on Sign ‘O’ The Times like he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s going at all times.  Without hyperbole, the album is an encapsulation of everything that went right with pop music in the 1980s.  The drum machine (a Linn LM-1 for the gear nerds among us) is precisely funky, and never comes off as mechanical or stiff.  Prince’s expert sense of in-the-pocket grooves when it comes to bass is on point everywhere, especially on the rather apocalyptic twilight rhythm of the socially conscious title track and the sensual “If I Was Your Girlfriend”.  There’s a decent balance between funk, soul, R&B, and that Eighties brassy pop.  Underneath all of that, however, is evidence (provided on “The Cross” and to an extent on “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”) that Prince played rock ‘n’ roll guitar like a motherfucker.

 

Sign ‘O’ The Times would be the last great Prince album – unless you count The Black Album, which was supposed to be Prince’s followup to Sign ‘O’ The Times until he had a bad trip and became convinced the album was evil.  Instead, he rushed out the half-baked Lovesexy, followed that up with the Batman soundtrack (which was okay as well) and then got into a horrendous, legendary fight with Warner Bros. that saw him change his name into a symbol and churn out a series of rushed albums to get out of his contract with the label (although Love Symbol is honestly pretty decent).  Legend (and Kevin Smith) has it that Prince has a vault of music that could last us all until doomsday, but chances are good that, as far as quality goes, none of it is going to top what Prince was doing on Sign ‘O’ The Times.

 

 

 

Pearl: 30 Years of The Joshua Tree

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U2 – The Joshua Tree

Released March 9th, 1987 on Island Records

BestEverAlbums: #34

Boy made them New Wave stars.  War broke them into a bigger stage and staked their claim as political rockers.  The Unforgettable Fire led Rolling Stone to claim them as “The Band of the 80s…for many, the only rock ‘n’ roll band that matters.”  One more push – The Joshua Tree – and they were bona-fide world-straddling superstars.

 

The Unforgettable Fire had been more in the line of an experimental album, produced as it was by the duo of Brian Eno and his faithful engineer Daniel Lanois.  It’s textures were complicated, it’s songs more impressions than compositions, and it proved to be difficult to translate to a concert setting.  For their follow-up, the band wanted to keep the best lessons they’d learned from Eno and Lanois, but pare down, and make their sound more expansive.  In the write-up on Neon Bible a few days ago I mentioned that the ocean was the overarching metaphor for the album.  In the case of The Joshua Tree, the overarching metaphor is the desert – wide-open, expansive, cinematic in quality.  The foundation of this ideal is The Edge’s guitar work.  He makes good use of delay, and by “good use” I mean “wrestles it into submission and makes the effect his very own.”  Whole reams of music journalism have been written about his playing on tracks like “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (and, more subtly, on “Running To Stand Still.”  On the other side, he uses slide techniques he gleaned from a friendship with Keith Richards to approximate the sound of fighter planes and dive bombers on the hard-as-nails “Bullet The Blue Sky.”  The rest of the band puts in a yeoman’s work – including Bono, whose voice has never fit the music better, before or since – but The Joshua Tree is without a doubt The Edge’s showcase.

 

It’s not just about wide-open desert vistas, of course.  A big theme of the album is the Irish band’s love-hate relationship with America.  Before the recording of the album, Bono visited El Salvador to witness the civil war first-hand.  He returned deeply angry with the Reagan administration and American foreign policy in general – this was the heart of “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Mothers Of The Disappeared”.  Ireland and the UK did not escape his anger, either:  “Where The Streets Have No Name” is about economic segregation in Belfast, “Red Hill Mining Town” is about the aftermath of the 1984 mining strike in the UK, and “Running To Stand Still” is about drug addiction in Dublin.  There’s also a sense of Bono being on a sort of spiritual quest for faith and renewal, with Biblical references, the yearning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and the grief for a lost friend that forms the basis of “One Tree Hill.”

 

In the aftermath, the band would go on to become crossover pop superstars:  millions of albums sold, sold-out world tours, being taken seriously by world leaders.  Achtung Baby would be a good follow-up in it’s own right, but after the things that were charming on The Joshua Tree would become over-exaggerated in the harsh floodlights of global fame.  The Edge’s guitar work would strive to go further and eventually collapse into self-parody, then complacency.  Bono’s anger and spirituality would become tiresome, as he became another jet-setting European elitist making pretty speeches about poverty in the Global South, while conditions continued to deteriorate.  Simply put, U2 would never again be as good as they were on The Joshua Tree.

Pearl: 30 Years of Criminal Minded

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Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded

Released March 3rd, 1987 on B-Boy Records

Before Biggie and Pac, before Snoop, Dre, and NWA, there was KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock, otherwise known as Boogie Down Productions.  Hailing from the South Bronx, they took spare drum machine beats and Jamaican dancehall rhythms and spun frank discussions of the reality of life in the streets in Eighties NYC over them.  It provided a template for what would eventually become known as “gangsta rap” when Dre did basically the same thing, but on the West Coast and more hardcore.  “9mm Goes Bang” and “The P Is Free” are basically the two basic gangsta tracks in vogue from Straight Outta Compton through to the moment 50 Cent lost a sales competition to Kanye West.  That’s nearly twenty years of guns and hoes, budding directly from Criminal Minded; while KRS-One adopted the moniker of “Teacha” for a completely different reason, one could make the argument that he taught an entire generation of vinyl thugs how to spit.  “South Bronx” and “The Bridge Is Over” also pioneered the “this place vs. that place” trope that hip-hop ran on in the Nineties.  BDP and their associates insisted that hip hop began in the South Bronx; rival MCs in the Juice Crew felt that the honour should go to Queensbridge instead, starting a rivalry that didn’t last long but provided another template for hip-hop music.

 

Another template for hip hop music was unfortunately set five months after the release of Criminal Minded.  After befriending a local kid (D-Nice, later a BDP member and the person that discovered Kid Rock in 1988), DJ Scott La Rock went to go make peace between D-Nice and a rival group of kids.  One of the rival group started spraying bullets everywhere and Scott was clipped in the neck, and died shortly after.  In the aftermath of his death, the group’s deal with Warner Bros. fell through and KRS-One decided that his efforts would be better spent forming the Stop The Violence Movement and pursuing more socially conscious hip hop, a format that he would become far better known for than the early hardcore tendencies found on Criminal Minded.  Regardless of his later career, though, Criminal Minded stands as the jumping-off point for a lot of what hip hop would become as the Eighties turned into the Nineties and beyond.

Pearl: 30 Years of Abigail

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King Diamond – Abigail

Released February 24th, 1987 on Roadrunner Records

Man, Mercyful Fate.  For an up-and-coming metalhead like I was in 1996-1997, there was nothing quite like discovering them.  My first exposure was either through Metallica’s Garage Inc. (where the band covered five Mercyful Fate songs) or through an old Metal Blade compilation we used to blast while playing euchre.  Either way, they were a quick favourite of mine, and why not?  They had great riffs, their imagery was over-the-top, and those vocals!  Kim Bendix Peterson, with his operatic range, seemed to summon up long-dead ghosts every time he opened his mouth.  I was a little defeated when I learned that the band had only recorded two albums before breaking up, but re-energized when I found out that the vocalist – the mighty King Diamond – had gone solo and taken the guitarist and bassist from Mercyful Fate with him.

 

The band’s first album – 1986’s Fatal Portrait – sold well, but Abigail is their first bona fide classic.  For one thing, it’s the band’s first concept album, a trope they would continue through the rest of their releases.  While some of their later stories would get a bit esoteric, Abigail is a classic ghost story, about a couple in the mid-Nineteenth Century who inherit a haunted house and are slowly destroyed by it over the course of the album.  Miriam, the woman who’d moved in, is pregnant with the spirit of the old owner’s stillborn child, Abigail, and the possessed child will wreak untold havoc.  After a series of bad omens, ominous foreboding, and ghostly encounters, all hell breaks loose.  It is, in short, metal as fuck.

 

Said metalness is borne out by the music the narration is carried on.  The band takes the basic sound of Mercyful Fate and expands on it.  Heavy guitar riffs are rendered heavier by space, reverb, and better production.  The drums punch through the mix in precisely the right fashion, and newcomer Andy LaRocque’s guitar work glows in the dark, like uranium fireflies in the darkest part of the forest.  The focus is, naturally, on King Diamond’s soaring voice, and despite what my Cannibal Corpse-loving guitar teacher once thought, there’s really no finer vehicle for ghostly destruction than his soured-opera-gone-Satanic delivery.  The fact that such a chilling, disturbing story can be paired with such a great package of post-thrash metal is exactly why King Diamond has continued to endure over three decades.