In the midwestern suburb where I lived as a teenager, I had a friend who worked the Saturday overnight shift at the only rock radio station in town. Once he admitted to me, "If we threw away every album we had except Led Zep IV, no one would ever notice." Indeed, while growing up in the cultural hinterlands, I had fed on a steady diet of mid-70's top-40 hits, then shifted to AOR, developing a love for rock music starting with a firm grounding in the Beatles, Stones, Who, the aforementioned Led Zep et al. But when the musical aether started to vibrate with new kinds of music, suddenly my world shifted on its moorings. When I saw Talking Heads, DEVO, B-52's debuting on Saturday Night Live, I thought, "This music is too weird for me." Later I had a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus kind of revelation: "This music will save the world!"--a wholly unoriginal thought every teenager has had upon hearing the new music of the age. While scouring record shops and radio stations for more of the compelling new sounds, I came across a few songs that seemed to have sprouted out of hidden corners, like mushrooms, and these songs remained enigmatic over the years. Here I present a few of my favorites.
What connects these songs, other than the fact that I enjoy all of them? Melodic hooks, first of all, drew me in. Further, these songs possessed a kind of buoyant and slyly gleeful quality seeming to portend a kind of bright future--the kind of bright future that appealed to a not-completely-cynical me so long ago. Wistful, sarcastic, earnest, or surreal, these facets outlined my younger self's developing persona.
A note about new wave: I'm using the term somewhat loosely to encompass these songs that emerged during the 1977-1981 time period. That is, post-Elvis Costello's first album, prior to the rise of Duran Duran on MTV. Some of these songs might be categorized as power pop or post-punk (a term I have never employed) or other genres.
In referring to these songs as obscure, I realize that everyone's idea of obscurity differs. Certainly these songs aren't at the level of a box of unlabeled ¼" open reel tapes bought at somebody's garage sale. These artists appear to have released limited commercial output, and had primarily local followings.
"Keep It Tight," Single Bullet Theory (1980)
This Richmond, VA band came to my attention via the Sharp Cuts compilation, which also featured up-and-comers the db's and Suburban Lawns (see entry in this list). Though the connotations of the band's politically violent name seem ominous, "Keep It Tight" surprises with a disarmingly captivating and rockin' sound. Jangle-pop guitars chime and cymbals crash majestically as this uptempo number chugs to life. Cheery organ, soaring sax, and reverberating hand claps embellish the singer's impassioned plea to a woman to remain faithful and "keep it tight!" Despite the undeniable radio-friendliness of this track, the band failed to catch on, only recording 2 albums and a handful of singles. Not entirely lost in the mists of time, some information about SBT does exist on the web, one webpage in particular relating in detail the story of the group's brief history, fraught with record company mis-management and lost opportunities. The group even opened for the Pretenders and other name acts, but never broke through to national recognition.
"Beep Beep Love," Gruppo Sportivo (1977)
The local library in the small midwestern suburb where I went to high school purchased the "10 Mistakes" album by this Dutch outfit for god-knows-what reason. I suppose a librarian thought they should augment their meager selection of worn-out musical soundtracks and sonic oddments ("E. Power Biggs Plays Scott Joplin on the Pedal Harpsichord") with fresher selections. I likely was drawn to this record for the quite adept cover of Zappa's "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," which they copped for the introduction of their original song, "Superman." (I actually enjoy their version more than either of Zappa's own versions.) Elsewhere on the album, "Beep Beep Love" stands out as a slick, poppy tune in which their worst jokey tendencies fortunately get tamped down in favor of an propulsive number layered with a string machine, and female backing singers providing beep-beeps borrowed from "Drive My Car." Judging from online accounts, this band still exists and continues to record and tour, so languish in total darkness they have not. (Bonus track: "Mission a Paris," from the same album, pilfers the "Nutrocker" piano lick in another jaunty romp.)
"Yellow Pills," 20/20 (1979)
I heard this song first on KROQ ("Roq of the 80's!") while driving around Los Angeles as an undergrad in college, which was the perfect way to experience this song. "Everybody's feeling groovy" goes the first line of this underappreciated treasure, but pulsing rhythmic synth chords and insistent snare drum loop signal that this four-piece group (with two founders originally from Tulsa, OK before relocating to LA) intend to show the hippies the door. The next line, "Everybody's cut their hair short," drives home that idea. While somewhat abstract in content, the lyric "turn left at Vine" gives the only tangible clue that the song is about sunny Los Angeles. The clean production of the track, featuring soaring harmony vocals, evokes the banal superficiality of an El Lay inhabited by tranquilized trend-followers coping with freeway traffic jams by relying on regular doses of the titular yellow pills. A sinister undercurrent bubbles to the surface in the bridge, when the singer confesses to the pharmaceutical tablets, "I always believe in your lies … I don't need to be real." 20/20 lasted long enough to release three full-length albums, with "Yellow Pills" possessing sufficient staying power to make it onto several compilations, but the band never broke into the top ranks. The group disbanded in 1983 but reunited for a time in the 90's.
"Lawnchairs," Our Daughter's Wedding (1980)
Our Daughter's Wedding's name blatantly seemed to invite comparison to Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. Indeed, the heavily electronic sound of ODW firmly cemented them as compatriots (and competitors) of OMD, Kraftwerk, and Gary Numan. This New York band's 1980 single, "Lawnchairs," definitely evokes OMD's lush pop sensibility, but melds it with Suicide-like starkness and stabbing punk percussion. (Note how the introduction sounds very much like "Messages" by OMD.) Suburban tedium gets an existential send-up with beeping, buzzing analog synthesizers providing a blasting wall of accompaniment in this dry-sounding, upfront production. The lead singer's delivery gradually grows more agitated as acoustic drums bash away in contrast to typical techno-pop emotionless demeanor. "Lawnchairs are everywhere, they're everywhere, my mind describes them to me," goes the chorus, suggesting an aloof detachment from mundane concerns--a perfect song for persons interested in aloof detachment from mundane concerns, such as myself. The group managed to record an EP and one full-length LP, then dissolved.