The Netflix series Stranger Things is a loving homage to American pop culture tropes of the 1980s, especially those seen in Spielberg-related films like ET, The Goonies, and Poltergeist: Nerdy kids on BMX bikes, sleepy suburban towns, supernatural creatures, and shady government organizations (the 2011 movie Super 8 was a similar tribute).
In this version the kids would have adventures while riding around a dingy London on Chopper bikes. Fueled on greasy chips and Fanta, they would fight toxic rubbish monsters that emerged from disused canals and rusty old fridges on bombsites. The mean old lady who lives in the crumbling, dark house at the end of their street would be a pagan witch who enslaved children when they climbed into her back garden to get their football back.
The Stranger Things soundtrack also reached back to the 80s with throbbing analog synths straight out of Miami Vice or a John Carpenter film. In my imaginary show the music would be influenced by the eerie themes of those 70s kid’s shows. They still sound scary today, especially if you were an impressionable kid when they were first broadcast.
Smokie (originally spelled “Smokey” until they were threatened with a lawsuit by a certain Motown legend) were a band from Bradford who had had been kicking around for years without any success before coming under the wing of the songwriting and production team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman in the mid-70s.
Though “Chinnichap” were famous for the Bubble-Glam hits they penned for Suzi Quatro, Mud, and The Sweet, they showed their versatility (and smarts) by not forcing the denim-clad Smokie into this mould and instead wrote some laid-back, country-rock songs for them that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an American FM radio station.
There must have been a gap in the market for a Northern English version of The Eagles — grey Yorkshire houses on the album cover instead of California hotels — because they were very successful. Their second album Changing All The Time was a big seller in 1975 down to the presence of the Chinnichap hits “If You Think You Know How To Love Me” and “Don’t Play Your Rock & Roll To Me.” They also wrote the title track which is a really lovely song, hard to believe it’s by the same guys who wrote “Blockbuster” and “Tiger Feet”.
Because of those hits my sister got the album for Christmas 1975 as a present from our Gran. She was 14 at the time and up until then had only owned Bay City Rollers and Osmonds albums so this might have been her first non-“teenybopper” record. Two years later she was into The Clash, but I don’t think Smokie were directly responsible for that. These days she really likes The Eagles which you probably can blame them for.
There are albums I always associate with working in the record dept of WH Smith in the late 70s-early 80s, mostly because we sold a shit-load of them at Christmas, like the Grease soundtrack and Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer (which I sold a copy of to Sue Lawley!) Another was Boney M’s 1978 album Nightflight To Venus which we shifted piles of that year.
Boney M were incredibly popular but they were also terrible. A manufactured group from Germany who made really awful dance pop with ridiculous songs like “Ma Baker” and “Rasputin”.
Most of the people buying it were older, probably parents getting it as a Christmas present for their kid or for themselves. I don’t remember any teenagers buying a copy, this being 1978 when there were lots of other things going on musically that were more appealing.
Normally we could play what music we wanted at work, but at Christmas we had to play records that were popular and seasonal. As a result I got to hear Nightflight To Venus several times and I have to say I thought the title track was surprisingly good. Being 16 at the time I kept such embarrassing thoughts to myself but I am beyond such things now. Though even now liking a Boney M record still strains the concept of a guilty pleasure to it’s extremes.
I still like it despite (or maybe because of) it being a total, lawsuit-worthy rip-off of “Dancing With The Devil” by Cozy Powell. With its pounding tribal drums and vocoder effects it probably sounds cooler now than it did in 1978.
I often think that the difference between British and American pop music in the 1970s can be defined by a difference between radio frequencies. Back then — except a few hours in the evenings and weekends — our national pop station Radio One only broadcast in Medium Wave (known as AM in the States) which meant that our listening experience was mostly tinny and lo-fi, the ideal aural environment for the primitive Glam Rock, New Wave, and tacky novelty songs that filled our charts during the decade. It’s also a pretty good metaphor for dismal 1970s Britain, even our radio reception was shoddy.
The United States, on the other hand, was the land of plenty with radio stations broadcasting in the crisp hi-fidelity tones of stereo FM; perfect for the sophisticated, well-produced Soft Rock of bands like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac which to me is the signature sound of American pop in the 70s. In my imagination it’s playing on the stereo FM radio of a big convertible, sounding as clear and warm as a California swimming pool.
It’s a generalization but that’s the impression I’ve always had. Medium Wave was all about the single, while FM favoured the album. One was Cum On Feel The Noize, the other Hotel California.
Beyond being a radio frequency, “FM” also signified a whole culture and style in the States, there was even a movie called FM set in a Los Angeles radio station made in 1978. I never saw it (I don’t think many people did) but I did have the soundtrack album which was a guilty pleasure for me at the time. Liking an album full of Bob Seger, Boston, and James Taylor felt like a subversive act in Punk and Post-Punk England, about the least hospitable place for slick AOR made by rich, suntanned Americans with beards.
The only new song on the soundtrack was the terrific title tune by Steely Dan which, not surprisingly for them, takes a cynical view of the very thing the movie was celebrating. Their records might also have polished, FM-worthy production but, unlike the other bands on the album, Becker and Fagen’s literate East Coast cool has meant they’ve always been hip.
I was going to write a thoughtful post about enjoying records that are considered a bit naff by some people. And not in any smug, ironic way either, but genuinely and honestly appreciating them as good music. But as I was trying to articulate those thoughts and how they relate to this record I just kept hearing this evil voice inside my head shouting YES! IT’S BARRY FUCKING MANILOW! AND I LOVE IT!! REALLY LOVE IT! I RECORDED THIS FROM VINYL! VINYL THAT I OWN!!! THAT I BOUGHT WITH MY OWN MONEY!!! I LIKED IT THAT MUCH!! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT? HUH? HUH??? — and I think, deep down, that’s what I really wanted to say.
Unlike a lot of men I’m not really a car person. Living in London I didn’t need to drive and didn’t learn how until I was 30 when I moved to Florida where you have to if you want any sort of life. As a result I don’t really equate them with freedom or girls like in the Springsteen songs and see them mostly as things to get you from A to B. Not that I don’t appreciate a beauty of a classic car like an E-type or Mustang (and wouldn’t say no to owning one), but I don’t get erotically aroused by them like the bloke in Queen’s “I’m In Love With My Car”.
There are a lot of pop and rock songs about cars but few make them as blatantly sexual as this. Written by drummer Roger Taylor, it’s hysterically over the top but there’s something gloriously ecstatic about it that I’ve always loved. With its lines about “pistons a pumpin” and “my hand on your grease gun” it’s almost, um, Ballardian in its erotic fetishization of cars.
I first heard this when it was the b-side of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and kids at school would sing “I’m In Love With My Bike” to it. We knew all the girls loved a nice Chopper.
Some records are just too damn short. I’m sure you all have songs you love but wish they were longer, the ones with the great riffs, melodies, or grooves that you want to go on forever. This is especially true of the pre-Disco 12″ era when records weren’t given extended versions.
Isaac Hayes is no stranger to long records — his version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” clocks in at an epic 18 minutes — but for some reason “Shaft” was only 4:37 and, I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough of that wah-wah guitar and swishy groove. To the rescue comes YouTuber DJDiscoCatV2 who has a page full of his own, home-made extended mixes like this one which stretches out Hayes’ classic to 9 minutes — even that feels too short though.