Tuesday Tunes 74: ’Lesser Known’ Eighties

Whilst thinking back to the music I liked and bought in the Eighties it occurred to me that much of it was from artists who didn’t make much of a dent on the charts. But they still made great music, and it seemed a good idea to feature some of them for you. These are all American, which may go some way to explaining their relative lack of success in the UK charts (apart from one of them), and I suspect that many of you will not have heard of all of them, or know their music. I’m going to share music by three acts, two or three (or four) tracks by each. Prepare for what may be a voyage of discovery!

Let’s start with the one I expect you’ll definitely know – after all, a group comprising Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison should be familiar, right? The Travelin Wilburys formed out of a range of collaborations and friendships, going right back to 1970 when George Harrison covered Bob Dylan’s song If Not For You for his wonderful triple album All Things Must Pass, which prompted them to get together and co-write I’d Have You Any Time, which became the opening track on that album. The Wilburys released two albums, Travelin Wilburys Vol.1 in October 1988, and Travelin Wilburys Vol.3 in October 1990 (that really is its title, not a typo on my part!). Only the first of these is within my chronological scope but it is far the better of the two, in my opinion, so all is well. I’m going for the obvious pair of tracks, partly because there are videos for them and partly because they are just so damned good. Here’s the first:

The album was, unsurprisingly, very successful, reaching #3 in the US, #1 in Canada and Australia, but only #16 here in the UK. This was the opening track and it was released as the lead single, peaking at #2 in Canada, #3 in Australia, but only #21 in the UK and #45 in the US. The album was very much a communal effort, and all of its songs are credited to the whole band as writers. That feeling of togetherness is at the heart of the video – all five sharing the same mic and taking it in turns for lead vocals. It sets the tone for the album perfectly. Jim Keltner played drums on all of the tracks on the album, except for this one, though he does appear in the video. The album won a Grammy in 1990 for best rock performance by a duo or group, and was nominated for best album, but didn’t win that one.

My second selection is the album’s closing track. It probably won’t have escaped your notice that only two of the band are still with us and, sadly, Roy Orbison left us in December 1988, very soon after the album came out. The title of this song carries a sad irony, for me, and the video includes the band’s touching little tribute to their friend:

This was also released as a single but didn’t fare as well, reaching #8 in Canada, #12 in Australia, #52 in the UK and #63 in the US. Despite the sadness of losing Roy, that video embodies the essence of the album, which for me is the joy that five friends had from making music together, and Jim Keltner clearly shares in that too. I always say that I defy anyone to listen to the album and not feel happier afterwards: I think you’d have to be lacking a soul not to! As a side note, the two albums were remastered and released as a box set in 2007, and gave them a UK #1 as well as reaching #9 in the US.

There is going to be a growing kind of roots/Americana feel through the rest of this post, building on the base provided by The Wilburys. My next artist is one who I’ve featured before, but not, I think, in this series, so this is long overdue. John Mellencamp gave me a lot of material to work with, as he released seven albums in the Eighties, five of which reached the US top ten, including a #1 and a #2. In the UK, by comparison, he had three in the top forty, the best of which peaked at #25 – like I said, these acts weren’t as well known here, by and large. I’m giving you three of his songs, two of which were huge US hits, as was the album they came from, and one which is the title track of what is still, after all these years, my favourite album of his. Starting with the biggies, then:

This was the second single from Mellencamp’s American Fool album, released when he was still performing under the name John Cougar (having previously been Johnny Cougar, subsequently becoming John Cougar Mellencamp, before eventually settling on using just his real name). As a single, it was released in July 1982, and was his biggest hit – it still is. It spent four weeks at #1 in the US, was #1 in Canada, and even managed to get to #25 here in the UK. The album was also #1 in the US and Canada, and made it as far as #37 here in the UK. In songwriting themes and content he has often been compared to Bruce Springsteen – a comparison which I think shows respect for both of them.

The first single taken from the album, to coincide with its release in April 1982, was this one:

I rather like that video (but I’ve no idea who the ladeez are!). This was his first big hit: it peaked at #2 in the US, though it didn’t reach that level until August, after Jack And Diane had already hit the shops. In total, it spent sixteen weeks in the US top ten, the longest run of any record in that decade. It was also a #3 hit in Canada, and #5 in Australia, but didn’t make the UK chart. We can be strange at times!

As I said, I’m giving you a third from JM: this is the title track from his final album of the eighties, Big Daddy, which was released in May 1989, by which time he was coming to the end of his John Cougar Mellencamp phase. This was never released as a single, so I’m afraid there is only the standard record company audio version, but I just didn’t want to leave it out:

The album peaked at #7 in the US, #1 in Australia, #3 in Canada and #25 in the UK – which was then, and still is now, his equal highest chart placing here either for an album or a single. His previous album, The Lonesome Jubilee, had taken a more folk/roots approach than he had previously employed, with a strong element of social conscience in its lyrics, and this one followed those trends. According to Wikipedia, this track is ‘the account of a parental authority figure whose selfish womanising ways have led to his downfall,’ and was interpreted as being an autobiographical song. The “Big Daddy” name was derived from a character in the old Tennessee Williams play Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, which was one of Mellencamp’s favourites.

My final choice for today is Ry Cooder, the one I’m expecting to be the least well known amongst you. His first album was released in 1970, and in total he gave us eight in the Seventies, all of which are excellent. My favourite of those is probably the last one, Bop Till You Drop, which was released in August 1979, which means it is just out of scope for this series. Do check it out, though: in particular the first side, which starts with the superb Little Sister, is well worth a hearing. He gave us three more in the Eighties, the first of which, Borderline (October 1980), is incredibly good. It features John Hiatt on guitar and backing vocals, and Jim Keltner on drums – these guys were close friends and, like Keltner, Cooder had previously played on some of Hiatt’s albums. I was going to include him in this post too, but it just became unfeasibly long – another time, maybe. Hiatt also contributed two of the songs, including the title track. I’m going to give you three songs from this album: there is nothing wrong with his other two Eighties albums, The Slide Area and Get Rhythm, but this is by far my favourite. Wikipedia is a bit thin on information about Ry Cooder’s albums, which reflects how far under the radar he has been, and all I can find is that this album charted at #43 in Australia. Many of his albums did make the charts there, though he doesn’t appear to have had much success elsewhere, which I find inexplicable. This is also reflected in the availability of videos – there aren’t many live versions on YouTube. I have, however, managed to find this. It is a little murky, but the music is great:

The song was written by Joe South, the Games People Play man, and was first recorded in 1965 by Billie Joe Royal, reaching #9 in the US, #1 in Canada, and #38 in the UK. This version is typical of the way Ry Cooder approaches his many cover versions, with a swing to the music and the contribution of his wonderful backing singers, William D. Smith, Willie Green and Bobby King. And of course there is his great guitar playing, with a style all of his own: it reflects the way he first learned to play the banjo and carried his method for that instrument into the way he plays guitar.

I mentioned that two of the tracks on this album were written by John Hiatt. This is one of them:

That is lovely, isn’t it. John Hiatt recorded the song as a duet with Roseanne Cash in 1983, but the planned release as a single never happened. Roseanne recorded a solo cover version in 1987, which topped the US Country Music chart. For me, though, this is the stand out version.

I could share just about any of the other tracks from this album but I’ll content myself with one more. This looks to me as though it is from the same gig as the Down In The Boondocks video, as again the video quality isn’t good, but it is notable not just for the excellence of the music, but also for the fact that it gives you a better view of the other guitarist in the band. He is, of course, the aforementioned John Hiatt, in the days when he still had hair:

I’m going to leave you with just one more song, as I had to include this one. Although, as I said, I preferred Borderline of Ry’s Eighties albums, the other two are still great records by anyone’s standards. This is the title track of his third Eighties album, Get Rhythm, which was released in November 1987. I found a few versions of this on YouTube, but chose this one as it has the best sound quality. The price to be paid for that is the subtitles, but at least you can now be sure that you did actually hear a hen clucking on this, and yes, that is Jim Keltner on drums again:

I must have been visiting my Mum when this was released, as I can remember buying the album in Our Price Records (remember them, British readers?) during a trip into Folkestone town centre, and then blasting it out in the car on the way home afterwards. For sheer exuberance, this one takes some beating, and you have the added bonus of the master of ceremonies, the epitome of cool in the hottest of climates, Harry Dean Stanton. As with Ry Cooder’s other records, Wikipedia shows this having reached the Australian chart, at #29, but nowhere else. The song was written by Johnny Cash, and was originally released in 1956, as the B-side to I Walk The Line. Those early Sun Records releases by Johnny Cash were great, but I think this version stomps all over his, and it’s a great place to close this week. Hopefully you’ve managed to last the course of these nine songs and have enjoyed the journey.

I’m not yet sure what I’ll be doing next week. I still have a lot of Eighties albums I could give you, but may do something different. You’ll just have to come back to find out! Until then, have a great week and take care 😊