A few weeks ago I bought a typewriter on eBay. I’ve been curious about the relationship between creativity and the tools with which we document that creativity. How would we change our thought process when composing in a journal versus typing on a computer or typing on a manual typewriter? Writers are superstitious beasts — not unlike professional athletes. So many unseen factors contribute to the ability to create and to perform. As much as anything that influences a writer’s ability to create, external sensory input remains the drug of choice. Ask any writer and they’ll likely have a list of musical artists or genres that encourages creativity. Writers write to music that inspires them, to help create mood and tone in their writing. I wish every book came with the soundtrack that inspired its creation. There’s perhaps no better way to get in the mind of a writer than to listen to the music that spurs them to create. Most often, I write to jazz — Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins are three of my go-to artists — or some melodic post-rock like Eluvium, Balmorhea or Signal Hill. Continue reading My Olivetti and Me (The Great Typewriter Experiment)
I first introduced the concept of “synesthesia nostalgia” in my rumble-worship about movie soundtracks of the 1980’s. Catch up here. In the wake of this rumble I wanted to compile a list of my favorite soundtrack moments from the Me Decade. In order to qualify for the list the movie soundtrack moment must:
A) accompany a memorable scene from an 80’s movie;
B) contain contemporary ’80’s music — either reconstituted (but still representing the ’80’s) or written exclusively for the film;
C) not be played only during a static credit crawl. I’ve allowed opening credit tracks (see #10 and #7) because the set up for a movie can be infinitely more influential than anything that takes place while everyone’s deciding whether or not to take their leftover popcorn home with them.
11. National Lampoon’s Vacation – Opening Credits
Song: Holiday Road by Lindsey Buckingham
I wanted to include Iggy Pop’s opening credits from Repo Man here to be “edgy.” I just couldn’t shake the Griswolds though. “Holiday Road” is such a recognizable stalwart of the 80’s soundtrack pantheon that I couldn’t deny Lindsey Buckingham the credit he deserves. He certainly doesn’t get enough love for being a vital cog in Fleetwood Mac (damn you Stevie Nicks for stealing his thunder). I’m sure a mention in this rumble will certainly put his confidence over the top. Opening credits? Sure. But as far as I can recall this song plays through every second of the entire movie.
10. Back to the Future – Too Damn Loud
Song: The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News
The Power of Love appears early in Back to the Future when Marty skates to school after blowing the amps at Doc Brown’s. It then reappears, perhaps less memorably… perhaps more, here when Marty’s band, the Pinheads, audition for the Battle of the Bands and a bespectacled Huey Lewis proclaims the song to be “too darn loud.” A short scene empowered by the song’s repeated appearance in the movie and the trilogy as a whole.
9. Beverly Hills Cop – The Cigarette Truck Chase
Song: The Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters
One of my favorite opening scenes to any ’80’s movie. Axel Foley. Cigarette truck. The Pointer Sisters. Movie magic. A perfect blend of synesthesia nostalgia. Fun wiki fact: the Russian government misinterpreted the song, believing the lyrics to be about nuclear war. I’m not sure but this might also have been the first R-rated movie I ever saw. Bonus points for that. And the banana in the tailpipe. And Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F. And Rosewood. And Taggard. I love this movie so damn much.
8. Caddyshack – Opening Credits
Song: I’m Alright by Kenny Loggins
Dancing gopher. That’s really what this is all about. Nobody can listen to this song and not think Caddyshack and the gopher. Kenny Loggins was the Grandmaster of Ceremonies for the 1980s and this is his happy funtime anthem. Unfortunately I can’t get a clean embed to the actual movie footage. Instead here’s a fan video of the dancing gopher… since that’s really all we really want anyway.
7. Flashdance – The Last Dance
Song: What a Feeling by Irene Cara
Regrettably I have no choice but to place this song in the countdown. Like it or not Irene Cara’s anthem is dripping, oozing with synesthesia nostalgia. This is the epitome of the concept itself. Movie and music are inextricably linked in form and memory. Still it pains me. Jennifer Beals has really aged well though, hasn’t she? The guitar solo at around 4:30 just kills me a little inside every time I hear it. I doubly cringe because now I must also think of Jennifer Lopez too. Urgh. What I would give for this song to be erased from our collective memories.
6. Better Off Dead – VanFrankenBurger
Song: Everybody Wants Some by Van Halen
I can’t really vouch for the song. On it’s own, it’s just not a very good Van Halen song. And then you have to get into the question about whether Van Halen was really a decent band rather than just a fascist conglomerate. I’m not prepared to go there. I am prepared to laud the awesomeness that is Better Off Dead. This is the best scene in Better Off Dead and it just happens to involve John Cusack doing a Dr. Frankenstein impersonation with a few pounds of raw ground chuck that turns into he and she burger patties singing Van Halen and it’s suddenly the best that Van Halen has ever sounded.
5. Footloose – Chicken Race
Song: Holding Out For a Hero by Bonnie Tyler
I’ll spare you another Kenny Loggins anthem. It would have been easy to pick just about any clip from Footloose and call it iconic. What moment in that movie isn’t strikingly noteworthy for one reason or another? I challenge you to find one menial, tedious moment in the whole film. Trick challenge. There isn’t one. But if we’re downplaying all the more awkward musical/drama moments, the scene that rises above all others is the Chicken Tractor Showdown. Pure teenage stupidity played for thrills and set to Bonnie Tyler?? Movie magic while the theme for Footloose just makes me think of ratty sneakers in close-up.
4. Fast Times at Ridgemont High – Phoebe Cates
Song: Moving in Stereo by the Cars
We could be more subtle about the reason for this scene’s infamy, but why bother? Any male knows this as the Phoebe Cates scene. It might not be immediately obvious but there’s a song playing when she exits that pool. And whenever men of a certain age hear this song by the Cars, they’re 90% more likely to experience a spontaneous erection than, say, men of any other age. It might not fit the other criteria for true synesthesia nostalgia, but there’s true potency in those subliminal messages.
3. Say Anything – Boombox
Song: In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel
This is by far my least favorite entry in the countdown. Not because I don’t love the song… or the movie… but because I hate being predictable. There’s no way to exclude “In Your Eyes” because no 80’s movie moment is more iconic than John Cusack standing outside Ione Skye’s window with that boombox. I miss the days where it was socially acceptable to haul a 20 lb. apparatus for blasting treble-heavy tunes on your shoulder. Maybe this should be #1 but I prefer it here. In the middle. Fun fact: the original working title of the film was …Say Anything… instead of Say Anything…
2. Ghostbusters – The First Call
Song: Cleanin’ Up the Town by the Busboys
What else did the Busboys do? I dunno. Don’t care. Their song begat the Ghostbusters into this world on their first honest paying gig. This is enough for three for four lifetimes. The best Hollywood movie of the 80’s has to have a killer 80’s soundtrack. While Ray Parker, Jr. got all the press (good and bad – shame on you for stealing Huey’s beat) the Busboys cranked out the real hit. Is it a great song? Without the movie, nobody remembers the band or this song. At the same time, what could have replaced the song? The whine of Ecto 1’s siren has become one with the jazz-fueled piano riff. (For the record, they put out a pretty decent record called Minimum Wage Rock & Roll.)
1. Top Gun – Beach Volleyball
Song: Playing With the Boys by Kenny Loggins
So you wanted “Danger Zone” did you? “Danger Zone” is a great track. I’m pretty sure I’ve tested all of my car stereos by cranking it up to 11. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some “Danger Zone” but when you hear the song what scene in Top Gun comes to mind? Maybe my experience has been warped somehow but I don’t think of anything other than F-14s flying around and landing, taking off and landing like I’m at some Blue Angels festival in the glowing dusk sunlight. There’s no scene attached to the song. And yes, I know I included the song from Caddyshack because of the dancing gopher… but that’s different. That’s different because there wasn’t the greatest homoerotic beach volleyball scene in history slapped dead in the middle of the movie backed by yet another killer jam from Kenny Loggins. The man really was a god among boy scouts.
I joined the U2 fanbase just after the release of Achtung Baby. I was 13 and mired in a two-year monogamous relationship with early 90s hip-hop. And then as night follows day I made my way through Joshua Tree, War, and Boy like a fat kid at the McDonald’s dollar menu. By the time I began high school I’d acquired every album except October (what was wrong with October, I have no idea) including Wide Awake in America EP and the Live at Red Rocks Under a Blood Red Sky.
My first show came in 1997. The PopMart Tour at Three Rivers Stadium. Three members of Rusted Root sat just to our left and we all basked in the glow of the 40′ lemon. They opened with “Mofo” – a song they have since disowned. More about this is a moment.
I heard a bit not too long ago about U2 being the best U2 cover band in the world. I forget who said it. Props to whoever that was: I’ve used it in conversation thrice and at least peripherally taken it to heart. While I was pretty excited to be attending my first U2 show in ten years this past Tuesday, I was also acknowledging that there was some truth behind the jest. But as I watched this show in all its lavish overabundance, I couldn’t get this thought out of my head. Had this band, a longtime favorite artist, a staple on my desert island record list (Achtung Baby, FYI) become so self-aware that it had ceased to be itself? Let’s ponder this together for a moment while I rattle off a few thoughts from the show.
Some things I learned on Tuesday night:
There is no better way to kill a raucous, stadium rattling crowd stirred by “I Will Follow” than to play “Get On Your Boots”. The song is such a tease. Opens with a gut thumping Adam Clayton bass groove before it succumbs under the weight of its inane, repetitive chorus and schizophrenic tempo. Sure a few innocents wooed when the song began, clearly caught up in the moment. But then I stood in awe of how a single song could stop a show dead. Stone cold. No Line on the Horizon isn’t a terrible record. It boasts a subtlety that How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb lacked. But that song, for the love of all that is holy, just absolutely cannot be the record’s ambassador. I didn’t even bother putting it on my iPod. Which is a shame.
I like the Pop album a lot. I listen to it with regularity. There. It’s out there. I said it. And therefore I find the disownership of the record disappointing. During the show, we got a whiff of “Discotheque” in a reverb-laden medley among other snippets from “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones, “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” (a much better cut from No Line on the Horizon) and “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads. I consider this even more disappointing than when Bono and the Edge played it as an acoustic breaktime for Adam and Larry. It’s called goddamn “Discotheque” and you play beneath a disco ball on top of a 30′ spire above the stage. Now you consider this remedial 90’s pop-tronica too embarrassing? Play “Mofo.” Play “Discotheque.” These are great arena- and stadium-thumping songs. Embrace the chaos. Own up to the album. And I’d bet these tracks would get a bigger reaction than anything from Zooropa, No Line or Atomic Bomb (save “Vertigo”). Pop just isn’t as bad as everyone remembers. I promise. It’s not perfect but there’s something innocent and infectious about its imperfect birth into this world. If you have any nostalgia for those killer (and sometimes not so killer) electro-grooves of the late 90’s, give it another shot.
Confession: I have an enormous man-crush on the Edge. Confession: I have developed a secondary man-crush on Larry Mullen which has displaced my former secondary man-crush on Bono. Mostly because I kind of feel for Larry and even Adam (though he’s become too sparkly) because they almost always seem like the third and fourth wheel at a kickass party.
Speaking of Zooropa… this is a solid, subtle album that was never embraced by the U2 fanbase. Why doesn’t anyone listen to it? If “Boots” killed the buzz on Tuesday, “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” just left everyone confused because they lumped it into a marathon of songs produced during the Achtung Baby era (which it was). Later they played “Zooropa” from behind a honeycomb of monitors and everyone just fell into their seats. Granted it’s a chill song and there are better tracks from the album… soooo… during “Zooropa” I stopped paying attention to the music and instead considered who would play each of the band members in a U2 movie. Here are my thoughts: Okay, I didn’t really have any profound thoughts except that Anton Yelchin (from Star Trek) is Larry Mullen. Spot on. I’m inking Colin Ferrell for Bono. It’s the attitude. Plus we need star-power to headline a solid ensemble cast and nobody’s more bloody Irish in Hollywood than Colin Ferrell.
But back to the rumble…
I write about Music because it moves me. If this music didn’t still affect me I wouldn’t be compelled to spend free time writing this rumble for this bl-g. As someone that writes about music I feel that I’m expected to write through a veil of cynicism, like Vaseline on a camera lens. And because of this expectation I find it difficult to write anything about U2. If I gush, I’m docked cred points for being a fanboy. If I’m negative, I’m disingenuous. I thought about the quip again. U2 is the best U2 cover band. And while I believe that there is some truth to that in that there are similar truths about any band that has been around long enough to reinvent itself three or four times over. After a decade or more we are no more the same people as they are the same band. We become covers of ourselves going through some of the motions established by our more successful, more handsome, younger selves. My friends expect me to be Jay, to live up to their perception of Jay. Sarcastic and full of useless knowledge about music and movies. I talk baseball and hockey whenever possible but don’t ask me about work because my work is my writing and it doesn’t pay any bills. And I oblige them. A band must experience a similar identity crisis each time they step on stage to play songs that they could no longer have written. Consider U2’s origin. Consider where they are now. Our environment shapes our creative output. Our muses and motivations come as much from external stimuli as they do internal.
I cannot lambaste U2 nor praise without reservation. I admire. I reflect. I grovel at the feet of the Edge for just a sample of his swag. Was the fourth show as thrilling as the first? In some ways yes. In others I can’t help but be disappointed. I found myself a little overcome when they played a snipped of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which segued seamlessly into “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I immediately felt guilty about calling U2 a U2 cover band. Were they the same band? Of course not, but they, like us, still feel that connection to their music and to their fans (who, let me tell you, haven’t nearly aged as gracefully). They weren’t merely going through the motions, fawning over their fans for coos and playing old favorites for applause. This could be argued (because it really is all perception), but Bono engaged and conversed with the fans, talking Pittsburgh-centric matters with a unique ease and candor, name dropping Perry Como, Andy Warhol and Bo the White House dog (this in particular caused a stir — Bono knowing more about Pittsburgh in some small way than the Pittsburghers themselves). He talked about their first performance in Pittsburgh in 1981 and called down to the crowd for the name of the club. It came as no surprise that a sizable portion of the crowd cried out “The Decade” without hesitation. I could only remark to my wife how amazing that must have been. She seemed shocked that I bothered to state something so obvious. I’d just never thought about U2 like that, a small intimate club — a short, by necessity set list, Bono and his old Euro mullet commanding a crowd with only the 11 songs from Boy and a few from the forthcoming October. Where would the 40’ lemon go? How could Bono grapple onto a glowing microphone hanging from the rafters and swing out over the crowd during “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me?”
And there it is. There’s the problem inherent to calling U2 a cover band.
This is my perception of U2. I’m just as guilty as the next asshole complaining that they don’t play such and such song and don’t write songs like they used to or play them exactly the same way they played them in 1984 (or in my case 1992). I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band play Phillips Arena in Atlanta nearly ten years ago now. I knew the songs on his Greatest Hits CD. I went with my (to-be) wife and her mother and couldn’t help but admire that I probably knew less than 50% of the songs he played. I didn’t have the history with Bruce that I have with U2. With Bruce I could just sit back and admire the spectacle rather than complain that U2 didn’t $%#$ing play “New Years Day” or how they insist on massacring “Discotheque.”
Being part hipster, I understand the underlying criticism. Widespread popularity has made them fodder for Top 40 radio rather than rebel music. It’s uncool to love U2 – even if you own all of their early records on vinyl. It’s like trying to use an expired passport to cross the border. There will always be people out there more excited to hear a song by the Au Pairs than anything by Bono and Co. The Au Pairs have been largely forgotten, relegated to the collections of 80’s Post-Punk enthusiasts. U2 survived. And they just keep going, for better or worse. But that doesn’t lessen our attachment to that music with which we originally fell in love (whether it was in 1981 or 1991 or 2001. If we love, we forgive. I will forgive “Get On Your Boots.” Others will forgive Pop or everything after Rattle and Hum. Others can’t forgive and give up entirely. They go back to listening to the Au Pairs because, other than completely disappearing, they never had the opportunity to disappoint their fans. The rest of us will continue to pay $100 per ticket to be conflicted, exhilarated and in constant awe.
I will always associate vinyl records with the soundtracks of the 80s: Footloose, Rocky IV, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun. These were some of my father’s favorite records to play, especially after my mom banned Abba from public presentation. She had become a conscientious objector; Abba had been relegated to the headphones. How many times have I heard each of these albums? Undetermined. However, I will say that I could probably sing along to every song on each of those records with at least 90% accuracy. Some better than others. Nobody owns me in a Footloose karaoke. If I did karaoke.
For someone not familiar with the 80’s – too young or perhaps too “not here” as my friend from college Jimmy Kuo often claimed when we questioned his ignorance on specific pop culture phenomenon – it might be hard to understand the pure, unadulterated righteousness of the 80’s and its excellent movie soundtracks. Removed from the movies in which they appeared, would these songs have endured? A great soundtrack not only contains great songs but the songs must also benefit the movie. I’m not so sure we remember Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” if not for National Lampoon’s Vacation. Search Youtube for “Danger Zone” and you’ll find no fewer than a dozen tribute videos to Top Gun featuring the song. The soundtracks were integral to the movie-watching experience. As I’ve written elsewhere, music grounds our experience in a place and time. Music does the same in movies, but only if the music benefits the movie as a necessary component, the blood, the pulse. It often creates an identity far more powerful than the influence of the screenwriter or director. While we’re damn sure that Kenny Loggins performed “Footloose,” who directed Footloose again?
At some point in the early 90s, movie soundtracks became a dumpsite. Artists contributed lesser tunes excised from previous or upcoming albums so that the distributing label could slap the artist’s name on the CD sticker. The Soundtrack for Transformers VI featuring a brand new jam from Justin Bieber.
I’d like to blame The Bodyguard for kickstarting the deficient movie soundtrack phenomenon. Maybe they wouldn’t sell 17 million records, but the pretenders could damn sure move a few million without putting in any more effort than what was required to compile a mediocre mixtape. But this movie-product tie-in business is almost as old as the industry itself. Is it as simple as saying that at some point, Hollywood just decided it didn’t care anymore? Serious filmmakers will always care about the score – movies are really the last stronghold of contemporary classical music composition. But can you name more than a handful of movie soundtracks from the last fifteen years that A) instantly recall a movie moment; B) contain mostly (if not all) contemporary music; and C) proved integral to the movie itself?
It took me twenty minutes to come up with two examples.
Biographies like Ray and Walk the Line had to be removed. Then there’s the question of the 40-Year Old Virgin and Anchorman which feature ornately orchestrated performances of cover songs. But these, again, are covers played for laughs and slathered with irony like chocolate syrup on a hot-fudge sundae. Consider the soundtrack to Friday. It satisfies a number of requirements – though it relies as much on new music as it does nostalgia tracks. There are plenty of excellent soundtracks that are no more connected to the movie than a sober Phish concert is to good times. The more research I did, the more Top 100 Soundtrack lists I scoured, the more I realized that the 80’s soundtrack model really wasn’t an isolated phenomenon (the theory of a contemporary, integrated pop soundtrack goes back to the 60’s with Easy Rider and The Graduate) but it has definitely become an endangered practice. And on top of everything else, nobody did it better or as often as the 80’s. But why? Righteous grooves weren’t proprietary to the Me-Decade.
In the early 1990’s, soundtrack trends splintered as popular culture fragmented. Gen X and the too-cool for pop-hits alternative culture commandeered the notable early 90’s soundtracks. Angst ruled. See Reality Bites, Singles, The Commitments. A few proud examples of killer, integrated mixtape soundtracks survived and oddly they almost always starred Mike Myers.
The Bodyguard and Boomerang sold bucketloads due to hit tracks from major recording artists. Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men struck gold in soundtracks for arguably terrible movies. After this the soundtrack business degraded into mix-tapes of B-sides from popular artists (maybe one huge single makes it out alive). These songs have no impact on the movie itself. See The Coneheads, Batman Forever, throw a dart and you’ll hit ten or forty-two compilations ranging in quality from useless to still-on-my-iPod. Not that these weren’t always around… just that their omnipresence seemed to increase.
Quentin Tarantino ushered in a refreshing new (and by new, I mean old) soundtrack paradigm – nostalgia for vinyl stacks and killer tracks (see American Graffiti). Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs begat more nostalgia in Dazed and Confused, Grosse Point Blank, Almost Famous, etc. Wes Anderson took this model and added a single-artist instrumental thread. The Life Aquatic being perhaps his most interesting experiment. Scored by regular collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and featuring David Bowie covers by Seu Jorge (a Brazilian artist who cites samba music and Stevie Wonder as his primary inspirations) Anderson combined the single-artist instrumental score with the single-artist mixtape. A brilliant soundtrack that still fails the 80’s model because outside of the few die-hard aficionados (like myself) no one could identify one moment from that film based on the music. Though I challenge you to watch the audio/visual poetry of the final scene of Life Aquatic (backed by Sigar Ros’ “Staralfur”) and not forever fall in love that song. Alas, the song doesn’t even appear on the final soundtrack.
The notable exception seems to be a short period in the 90’s where rap/hip-hop oriented soundtracks contained solid, previously unreleased tracks. See Juice, Judgment Night, Friday, New Jack City. Also Romeo + Juliet proves problematic for my oversimplified history. “Lovefool” probably sirs instant-coffee memories of Danes + DeCaprio, but this is a bl-g, not a motherflippin’ thesis and I don’t really
want to remember that movie. Moving on. The end result is the degradation of the big movie moment. The modern-mixtape soundtracks are nothing more than a collection of disconnected, disjointed songs. The New Moon album boasts an impressive roll call of indie favorites but what do they contribute to the movie? No one seems to build scenes or characters around pop music any more, certainly not without the sense of irony mentioned with regard to The 40-Year Old Virgin’s rendition of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” This is equivalent to the awkward kid making a sex joke on a date because he doesn’t know how to make his first move. Misfired sincerity is much harder to laugh away.
What always seems to be missing is the iconic movie/song combination that instantaneously recalls a moment, a movie, a character. Synesthesia nostalgia. I started writing this rumble because I thought a quick study might lead me to profound thoughts about the nature of music and the way we watch movies. My profound thought is that people just had more fun in the 80’s. No really. That’s it. Everyone believed that they were living in the best of all possible worlds and Kenny Loggins was the Grandmaster of Ceremonies. And then, suddenly, everyone found cynicism. Not only were we not living in the best of all possible worlds, but pop culture was and always would be a false prophet peddling false hope and a subpar product.
Demographics fragmented. A puritanical undercurrent rose up and conquered the Carefree 80’s just as it had conquered the Roaring 20’s. The music industry also changed. As I discussed in my rumble about Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the studios tried harder to protect their property as it became increasingly more difficult to promote and protect the “superstar.” Soundtracks became infomercials for movies and music samplers to promote a label’s artists. As a result the soundtrack album has become irrelevant. We can cherry pick singles of our favorite artists at $1.29 a pop. There’s no more slogging through the instrumental “Dana’s Theme” on Ghostbusters if we can just download some Ray Parker and the Alessi Brothers’ “Savin’ the Day” on their own. If we are to claim that digital media killed the album as an art form then the idea of a contemporary pop soundtrack has been tarred and feathered. We live in the Now Generation.
The end result is that soundtracks can still be great, but the 80’s (and the 70’s while we’re at it) Hippy-hippy-shake-take-my-breath-away-man-in-motion model of soundtracking has been shelved up there in the cabinet next to your grandma’s marmalade because we’re too damn busy being nostalgic and f$#%ing serious all the time. The fact is that no one has the balls to orchestrate a two-minute, all-male beach volleyball montage to Kenny Loggins’ “Playing with the Boys” anymore. Today we mock this scene because it’s an easy target. But weren’t most of the 80’s? The Top Gun volleyball scene doesn’t represent the worst of the decade – it represents some the best. The fun, the confidence, the unbridled enthusiasm (to borrow one of a thousand favorite Seinfeld phrases). It’s possible we missed the overt homoeroticism at the time, but we were all so innocent then. So innocent that we watched movies just because they were good clean fun, often backed by thematically relevant killer jams. Imagine the novelty.