Eugene Register-Guard, January 1, 1981

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Lennon's loss casts long shadow
over year in pop music

Robert Hilburn / Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD — This was the year that Bruce Springsteen finally caught on commercially and the year that radio replaced record companies as the vi1lian in the rock 'n' roll drama. And it was the year that John Lennon was murdered. The horror of that Dec. 8 shooting in New York casts a shadow over any discussion of pop music.

The impact of Lennon's passing can be measured in the way his music has dominated the radio in recent days and all the words written about him, but these public tributes don't explain — or ease — the private loss felt by the ex-Beatle's fans.

As with Elvis Presley's death in 1977, Lennon's murder reminds us how deeply certain rock performers can touch us, and why the most important rock can connect on a sociological as well as musical level. That lesson was lost during much of the 1970s, when record companies sidestepped adventurous new forces in favor of faceless tacticians.

The British-sparked punk-new wave movement, which sought to restore personality and comment to rock, had just begun to rally against rock's conservatives when Presley died, but they had trouble getting signed by record labels. Sales were at an all-time high, so executives didn't see any need to "rock" the boat with these feisty upstarts. The rock audience was older, they rationalized, and it wanted to be soothed, not challenged.

The subsequent success, here and in England, of acts like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, the Cars, Blondie and the Pretenders finally forced a re-evaluation of the record-industry thinking. As record sales sagged In the late 1978, executives began to wonder if one problem was stagnation. Maybe new spokesmen and new heroes were needed.

The result was a rush to sign new bands; so many, in fact, that it was impossible in 1980 to keep up with all the interesting new groups. The growth of independent labels like Stiff, Rough Trade and Slash meant that even rockers that still seemed too extreme for major labels got recorded.

But there was a catch. As record companies became more flexible, radio — still the chief means of music exposure in this country — became more rigid. The acts may have been finally on record, but few of them got on the air. Only five of the albums in today's Top 10 got enough airplay to qualify for Radio and Records magazine's list of the 80 most played LPs of 1980.

Lennon was a big booster of the current pop scene. In New York last October, he said, "I love the music of today. It's the best period since the 1960s: the Pretenders, the B-52's, Madness ... the Clash ... it's the perfect time for me to be coming back .... It's my period again."

Lennon's identification with the new-wave contingent was based largely on their mutual fondness for the passion and daring of 1950s rock: the Presleys, Chuck Berrys, Jerry Lee Lewises. Though the sounds of many of today's new-wave extremists bear little resemblance to the records of the rock pioneers, they share a common against-the-grain attitude toward the placid pop mainstream.

Because of the emotional aftermath of Lennon's death, it's difficult to assess the album with confidence. For that reason, I eliminated it from consideration when drafting today's list of 1980's best LPs.

As in past years, the list reflects a wide range of ambition and styles. But these LPs shared a vitality and strength that placed them above the thousands of other releases during the past 12 months.

The best albums of 1980:

1. Bruce Springsteen's The River (Columbia) — Aside from the continuing number of outstanding new bands, the most encouraging news in pop music during 1980 was that Springsteen's popularity finally caught up with his critical acclaim, thus establishing him as our best link with rock's heralded Presley-Lennon-Dylan tradition.

Springsteen earned that position with this album, a two-record set that summarized and extended that classic romanticism of American rock, and he lived up to it with a tour noted for the way It challenged an artist's ability to give and an audience's ability to receive.

Both a sermon and a celebration, The River is Springsteen's richest and most mature album. Where he once spoke chiefly about pursuing one's dreams, he now is equally concerned with those who lose track of their dreams. The moods run from exhilaration to despair, courage to helplessness. The connecting thread is compassion.

Part of Lennon's contribution with the Beatles was to apply a poet's sensitivity to rock's primitive energy, thus making the music an attractive alternative for creative artists who otherwise might consider only films or books. The River overflows with that sensitivity and grace — a collection that ranks alongside Dylan's Highway 81 Revisited and Presley's Sun Sessions as one of the high points of American rock.

2. Graham Parker's The Up Escalator (Arista) — In last year's "Squeezing Out Sparks," Parker dealt with various personal and career frustrations. The stirring LP brought the English rocker renewed critical support and his biggest commercial success in this country. In this even more satisfying and accessible package, Parker touches on maintaining one's artistic validity. Elsewhere, he mocks record-biz infighting in the humorous "Maneuvers" and jabs at complacency in "Stupefaction." But the album's highlight is "Endless Night," a triumphant rock statement of self-affirmation.

3. X's Los Angeles (Slash) — This is not only the best album to come out of the new LA rock scene, but it is also the first American album to answer the British punk challenge with equal imagination and heart. The fact that every major record company In America turned down the band as too radical and too uncommercial tells a lot about the problems that still face the record industry here. X's music isn't pretty. Songs like "Sex and Dying in High Society" and "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" carry the sting of the boldest social realism — acidic and alarming. Lots of bands specialize these days in reflecting urban anxiety. None does it with more power or persuasion than X.

4. Pretenders (Sire) — The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde is the quintessential rock 'n' roll woman. Mixing on stage the renegade cool of Keith Richards and the moody accessibility of Tom Petty, she captures vocally the seductiveness of the girl groups from the 1980s and the independence of today's best female rockers. The group's "Brass in Pocket" reflected both the lilt and tension in the Pretenders' music and was rivaled only by Lennon's "Starting Over" for single-of-the-year honors.

5. Elvis Costello's Get Happy!! And Taking Liberties (Columbia) — Measured against the force of last year's triumphant Armed Forces, these two 20-song collections were little more than unfinished sketches from Costello's musical notepad. Happy!!, which was released first, was a deliberate break from the self-consciousness of modern recording techniques, while Liberties was simply a group of Costello singles and other odds-and-ends that had not been released on an album in this country. But the range of styles (from Memphis-flavored R and B to country) and the quality of Costello's lyrics overcame the first-draft sense of the arrangements enough to make both albums lively and arresting works.

6. Donna Summer's The Wanderer (Geffen) — Nothing underscores the racial isolation of FM rock radio stations more than their reluctance to play Summer's records. From the Presleyesque vocal touches on the title track to the sizzling rhythms on "Cold Love," this album contains some of the most exquisite rock of the year. So why don't self-proclaimed rock stations play it? Most stations say Summer is viewed by their listeners as a disco or soul artist and therefore out of place on tile rock for mats. What they're saying, I'm afraid, is that Summer is black.

7. The Clash's London Calling (Epic) — Part of England's original Punk Spirit of 1976, the Clash brings punk of age in this often dazzling two-record set that combines many of rock's most affecting roots, (from rockabilly to New Orleans-styled R and B with 1980 sensibilities). The quartet, which plays with as much intensity live as any group ever in rock, took a big gamble in moving away on this album from the full-speed abandon and political preoccupation that characterized its first two LPs, but the band proved up to the challenge.

8. Prince's Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.) — Prince was the pop-rock surprise of 1980. In his first two albums, he seemed destined to become a sort of junior grade Stevie Wonder, a pop-R and B artist who wrote, sang and played a variety of instruments. His "I Wanna Be Your Lover" single early this year mixed playful lyrics, spunky instrumentation and a breathless, falsetto-edged vocal. But this album was an eye-opener that found Prince — still just 20 — moving into a racy rock-R and B style that combined the sensualness of the early Al Green with the dynamic tension of Donna Summer's most pulsating records. Prince's X-rated lyric excursions give him a boldness that seems beyond the reach of polite cohorts like Michael Jackson. A major arrival.

9. The Selecter's Too Much Pressure (Chrysalis) — There are more serious rock entries, such as Talking Heads, Gang of Four and Public Image Ltd. that might deserve a mention here, but this British-based ska-rock-band, featuring lead singer Pauline Black, offered the most cheerfully upbeat brand of Jamaican dance music since the The Harder They Come soundtrack album.

10. John Prine's Storm Windows (Asylum) — The 10-song package isn't as consistent as Prine's 1972 debut collection, but the songs deal with romantic complexities more poignantly than any other album of 1980, including such best-sellers as Jackson Browne's Hold Out. The heart of pop music is still songs and the best of these tunes, reaffirm Prime's position as our most evocative folk-country writer.


Eugene Register-Guard, January 1, 1981

Robert Hilburn ranks Get Happy!! and Taking Liberties fifth on his end-of-year 10-best list.


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