a star “bangled” banner night

Soundtrack in my head:  The Bangles, "Going Down To Liverpool"

Debbi Peterson yelled out from behind her drum set, "Are you having fun tonight?"  The crowd at the Orpheum cheered loudly.  "We’re having fun, too," she replied. That’s why the Bangles were there, and that’s why the crowd was there.  What other excuse was needed?

I didn’t intend for this to be 80’s nostalgia week, with back-to-back postings about Prince and the Bangles, but that’s how the muse struck me this week.  So what?  I make no apologies for that.  And you can try to throw the proverbial book at the Bangles for the supposedly heinous crime of performing while old (though they really aren’t that old), and they will still continue to play hard.  The way they played Friday night, the band had nothing to apologize for.

The Bangles formed in 1980, parted ways in 1989, but got back together in 1999 and have been touring intermittently since then.  I could sense that the band was having more fun this time around, perhaps because they are more free from the crushing pressures that accompanied their stardom and pin-up status in the 80’s.

For those of you not familiar with the Bangles beyond "Walk Like an Egyptian," there is a depth to this band beyond the fluff-pop label often stuck on them.  This is a band whose members’ personal record collections you would want to rifle through. In fact, some of it might have been playing through the speakers before they got onstage-a lot of mid-to-late 60’s stuff like the early Kinks and the Grassroots played through the speakers as their roadies tuned their guitars. They started out in the early eighties in Los Angeles’s Paisley Underground music scene, which took 60’s rock influences and blended them into an 80’s post-punk format-the scene included bands like Rain Parade and The Dream Syndicate and others. 

The clip below gives you an idea of their early garage band days.  The song is from their 1982 self-titled EP, before they were signed to a major label. The clip is from "MV3," a TV show that was like an odd a blend of MTV and American Bandstand for the early 80’s. I actually remember seeing this clip when it first aired, and the band caught my eye right away. This clip demonstrates the knack they have for discovering 60’s pop hooks as if they were clothes at the bottom of a thrift store bargain bin, and finding ways to creatively incorporate them into something more modern.

They opened with "Hazy Shade of Winter," a cover of a Simon & Garfunkel song.  They played it a little less energy than I would have liked. But as the evening went on, the crowd seemed to energize them, and in turn, they energized the crowd even more, and this cycle repeated itself throughout the concert. 

What was eerie was observing how similar their stage presence Friday night was to this video clip from 25 years ago.  That’s not a bad thing. The three original band members were still there, and they were actually standing in the same places on the stage as they did on the video clip.  Guitarist Vicki Peterson had a powerful stage presence and looked like Mary Tyler Moore with an attitude.  Her sister Debbi Peterson frequently hammed it up with the crowd, and Susanna Hoffs showed vulnerability and warmth when she sang, and expressed her appreciation to the crowd by blowing kisses.  Longtime bassist Michael Steele was not with them–she was replaced with a woman who looked perhaps fifteen years younger than the rest of the band.  She stood somewhat nervously to the side at the beginning of the concert, but interacted with the band and appeared to have more fun as the night went on. 

They played a couple of tracks from a CD they released in 2003 called "Doll Revolution."  Vicki commented afterwards, "It seems like Madison has a lot of highly educated people because a lot of you were mouthing the words from our most recent CD."  I was not one of the educated ones, but I was surprised and impressed with the tracks they played from it. After another one of their more recent songs, a guy in front of me turned around and said, "Hey, did you know that song? That was a really good song."

After that, they played a couple of songs from their very early garage days when they opened for punk bands.  Susanna quipped, "We played fast so we wouldn’t get things thrown at us." 

It was great to observe the way the band members interacted with each other.  Clearly a big reason the Bangles got back together was because of the fun they were having. They did more improvising toward the end of the concert, and at one point, Vicki and Susanna got down on their knees facing each other and looking up at Debbi behind the drums as she jammed away on a solo. Clearly these are musicians who have played a long time together, and one could sense the bond they have with each other onstage.

I was floored by Vicki’s and Susanna’s backing vocals on "Going Down To Liverpool"–I was surprised at how angelic and perfect they sounded, even though they were live. It’s rare nowadays to see vocalists harmonize the way they do. 
Susanna, Vicki, and Debbi are each excellent vocalists in their own right. While Susanna seems to get the most attention (as evidenced by a recent Isthmus article), the reality is that they take turns with lead vocals, and during the concert each had about an equal amount of time taking the lead-plus many of their songs have two or three of them taking the lead.

Towards the end of the concert they focused more on their 80’s hits.  Vicki, Debbi and Susan each took turns with a verse on "Walk Like an Egyptian," and between the second and third verses, they took a temporary segue into a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s "Mrs. Robinson," just for the fun of it.  They looked no less seductive performing "In Your Room" than they did in the late 80’s.  (I realize I still have a crush on Susanna Hoffs.)  Susanna dedicated the encore closer "Eternal Flame" to the audience and swaying Bic lighters and lit cellphones responded in kind.

After the concert let out, I got about a block away from the Orpheum when a young guy with two friends asked me–apparently jokingly–how the concert was.  I replied, "Awesome." I heard him laugh as they passed me, saying, "He actually went to the concert."  Some people just aren’t going to get the Bangles. That’s fine. Those who did, and who attended the concert Friday night were in for a real treat.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xew_kvHDhOk]

black, white and “purple rain”

Soundtrack in my head: Prince and the Revolution, “Let’s Go Crazy”

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in this thing called nostalgia. Electric word nostalgia, that means years ago, and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else–the afterword…

At the bargain bin of a record store during I picked up a used DVD copy of Prince’s movie, “Purple Rain.” It was the “20th anniversary edition.” I finally got to watch it a few days ago.  I was seventeen and arguably at the height of my adolescence when the movie came out, and so in watching it sort of catapulted me back to that time.  It was also interesting to see recent interviews with members of the Revolution, and seeing Wendy and Lisa and Dr. Fink, now middle-aged, talk about that era. 

Prince has never been my favorite musical artist, but “Take Me With U” still nicely encapsulates for me the excitement of newfound love. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that within a couple years of the movie’s release, I gave a girlfriend one of my earrings to wear just as Prince did in the movie for Apollonia–an 80’s update of the “class ring on a chain.” The same girlfriend once, at my suggestion, swept her hair to one side a la Wendy and Lisa when we went out to a dance club (though I really wasn’t thinking about Wendy and Lisa at the time). And occasionally I still might catch myself inaudibly chanting, “Jesse! And now, Jerome…yeyyyyeahhhhh…”

Okay, before I embarrass myself further…

There are other memories associated with the movie that were also significant, though not intended by the moviemakers. The second time saw the movie I was with friends and a French foreign exchange student who’d recently agreed to be my homecoming date. Because my hometown of Oak Park was and is somewhat of a racially mixed suburb, roughly equal numbers of white and African-American people were in the theater. With about twenty minutes of the movie to go, one of my friends whispered that a rumor was circulating in the theater about a race riot that was supposed to break out after the end of the movie. I was pretty certain that no such thing was really being planned and that someone was likely just trying to play a prank and instill fear in people. Nevertheless, we did not want to take any chances and so we left just as Prince was beginning to sing “Purple Rain.” When we exited the theater, the street was surprisingly full of people who also clearly had heard the rumor. We quickly made our way to our cars. My French foreign exchange date was confused, and kept asking “What about Purple Rain?” as we left.

The incident is something I didn’t think about much at the time, but looking back at the context of the early 80’s, the incident was quite significant in many ways. As the 1970’s gave way to the 80’s there seemed to be strong segregation between white and black music, which at that time was embodied at that time in the conflict of “rock vs. disco” (even though disco, in reality, was a multi-racial phenomenon.) Among most of my peers, I wouldn’t have be caught dead listening to anything even closely resembling disco, and in fact I got a lot of ribbing from friends for buying the hit single “Funkytown” by “Lipps Inc.” (Oddly enough, they were a Minneapolis-based act like Prince). I bought about eighty 45’s between the ages ten and fifteen, and out of those, only four or five were by African-American artists. To what extent racism played a role in this is debatable, but from everything I could see, very few white kids were listening to Donna Summer and very few African-American kids were listening to AC/DC.

In high school, social segregation between African-Americans and whites was very noticeable. It’s interesting, because such segregation was less common during grade school, and the African-Americans I was most friendly with were people I’d known since kindergarten or fourth grade. One frequent comment heard in my school was that the only places whites and blacks socialized were in the honors classes and on the football team.

But as the early 80’s continued, more musical artists began to develop crossover appeal to both whites and blacks. Michael Jackson was probably the earliest and the biggest crossover act of that decade, though I never was really a fan of his. But below the mainstream radar some interesting things were happening, too. Rap was starting to attract a fairly diverse audience. And WBMX, which, interestingly enough, broadcast out of Oak Park, began to perfect the art of “the mix” as disco tracks blended with the new dance music coming out of Britain and Europe in the years right before the station became known as a pioneer in house music. There were a few kids my age, both black and white, who would imitate the DJ’s by doing their own “’BMX mixes” on cassette tapes.

Prince had some appeal to us music snobs. While I considered him a bit creepy the first time I saw the video to “1999,” he grew on me. In addition to the new wave music coming out in the early 80’s, I also had an interest in the psychedelic rock of the 60’s, and I noticed with “Purple Rain” how he’d mix both of those influences in with other influences. He was definitely not the first musician in the 80’s to dress in weird and creative ways, but he was still unique—like his music, he borrowed from influences all around and blended things into a rather unique style. He was not the first artist in the 80’s who through his actions was saying, “It’s okay to be weird and different,” but he probably helped elevate the notion to a level of popularity higher than Boy George or Depeche Mode had until that point.

Who knows why someone was motivated to spread rumors of a race riot that one evening? One can only speculate, but times were changing. Issues of race haven’t gone away by any stretch of the imagination, but nowadays, I don’t think there is as much concern about the race of a musical artist. One of my current housemates—a white guy about twenty years my junior from Chicago’s south suburbs—recently tried to explain to me why the late hip hop artist Tupac Shakur had such a profound personal influence on him. I don’t think I would have heard a young white kid say anything like that when I was in junior high.

Nostalgia sometimes has a way of turning people of a bygone era into caricatures that fit neatly into one’s view of the world. Many people automatically think cheesy pop and hair metal when they think of the eighties. But sometimes hindsight can help provide clarity as well, and Purple Rain is but one small reminder of just how complex and interesting those years were.

Because in this life, things are more complex than the afterword…

welcome to my new media

Soundtrack in my head: Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Coming In From The Cold”

This is my 123rd post on The Different Drummer Soundtrack, but my first post on Post. At the risk of making myself sound like a cereal commerical, I figured that I should make my first post on Post about…Post.

For those of you not in Madison or not in the know, Capital Newspapers is a partnership between Madison’s two daily papers, the Wisconsin State-Journal and the Capital Times. In addition to publishing both papers (and others), they also run Madison.com, which is a web page that links to stories in these two Madison daily newspapers, to local TV station WKOW Channel 27, and includes local discussion forums and Post.

I’m serious when I say that there is something interesting happening there. I don’t think even most Post readers realize the significance of Post’s experiment in bringing old media and new media together.  As S.J. Barlament, a fellow Post blogger, said in a recent email to me, “The thinking here, if it’s not obvious, is that madison.com realizes that it sits atop a thriving online community… Post exists to raise awareness of, and draw traffic to, the blogs of the people who are making that community what it is. It’s a great idea, in my opinion, and it’s pretty impressive for a newspaper company to be embracing the internet in this particular way … I think Capital Newspapers is to be applauded for pursuing what I think is a fairly revolutionary concept.”

I agree.  Post began linking to The Different Drummer Soundtrack website a little over a year ago. In past posts on my website, I’ve written a lot about how big media companies exercise disproportionate influence on public debate, and how the Internet in general and bloggers in particular serve as an important counterweight to that. Even as other entities try to find ways to control what we see on the Internet or how we access it, Capital Newspapers instead seems to be embracing the openness of the Internet and is trying to work constructively with it—at least as far as I can see right now. There is also—in a rather interesting reversal—a monthly print publication also called Post, which provides a snapshot of Post’s online content.

Even though I’ve ventured onto Madison.com many times during the 4 ½ years I’ve lived in Madison, it’s taken me a while to realize the significance of what they’re trying to do. There might be room for improvement in clearly explaining what Madison.com and Post are about. They might also take a look at the user-friendliness of the site (I’m among the 84% of people polled who believe they need to go back to the design they had until last month.) Nevertheless, I am glad that they are doing what they’re doing.

Now a little about me. I’m an “aging Gen-X’er” living in Madison. I grew up in the Chicago area and lived there most of my life. I spent twelve years in fundraising—much of it for environmental causes. Since moving to Madison I have lived in a housing co-op and have been active with the co-op movement and have been doing more and more writing. I’ve been starting to do a little DJ’ing and am a voracious collector of music.

As for what The Different Drummer Soundtrack is, well, it’s been a little hard for me to define it, and I’ve resisted doing so. I’ve recently broken all my posts into categories, and they break down to look like this (number of posts in parenthesis):

I’m not quite sure yet how The Different Drummer Soundtrack–The Website will relate to The Different Drummer Soundtrack–The Post Blog.   There will be a lot of dual postings.  I may post things on The Website that I don’t post on The Post Blog.  Or vice versa.  Or maybe one of the blogs will have a special decoder key that you can use on the other blog to reveal a secret message on the other one.  Kind of like a toy surprise in a box of cereal…