Album Challenge Day 10: “A Night At Studio 54”

A Night At Studio 54

In my dreams, I get the nod and leave the pleading masses behind, through the velvet ropes, with Liza on my arm or perhaps I’m riding a horse, into the most decadent gathering since the Roman Orgies, a light show above swirling dancers, people doing who knows what in the balcony, and above it all, the moon snorting coke.

Well, I was only 14 years old during the height of Studio 54’s heyday, so that hardly would have been realistic unless I was friends with Brooke Shields or Michael Jackson, but you can bet that I heard all about the famed club even while growing up in Japan.

And ever since, I’ve been obsessed with what it would have been like to be there. What a perfect use for a time machine! That is why I’ve picked club’s official album, “A Night at Studio 54”, as my 10th choice for the Album Challenge.

This compilation of disco classics released by the disco label Casablanca was designed to replicate a night at the disco. All you needed was a disco ball and line of coke, cardboard cutouts of Divine, Halston, and Cher and you were there.

It has been said that the club’s playlist was rather conventional, rather than edgy and underground, and the album reflects that. But the hits were hits for a reason and have remained popular for over 40 years, so it was quite representative. Among the tracks, you had:

“Le Freak” by Chic. This song was actually inspired by the club, or rather by members of Chic being rejected from getting into Studio 54, then channeling their anger into a song called “Fuck Off” which they luckily changed to “Le Freak”, giving them the last laugh.

“Y.M.C.A.” by Village People, a song played at every wedding, but quite subversively gay at the time.

“Take Me Home” by Cher, from her disco period.

“I Love The Nightlife” by Alicia Bridges, later revived memorably in the “Priscilla” film.

“Last Dance” by Donna Summer, ’nuff said.

“Got To Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn, written by her, David Foster, and David Paich of Toto; she would also appear on Toto’s “Georgy Porgy” from their debut album.

“Shake Your Groove Thing” by Peaches and Herb, also memorably used in “Priscilla” during the ping-pong ball scene.

All-in-all, it got us as close to a fabulous night out at Studio 54 as we’d ever get. In truth, the legend probably remains better in our dreams than in reality, probably a night you wouldn’t have remembered anyhow due to all the drugs you ingested. Ah, the dream!

Album Challenge Day 9: The The “Soul Mining”

Soul Mining

Having found the perfect meta name for a band, Matt Johnson released “Soul Mining” in 1983 under the band name The The.

Although Matt was subject to a bidding war and got a huge advance from the winning label, the record sounds like it was recorded in a bedroom; still, the homemade vibe enhances its authenticity, with intensely private thoughts and emotions set to a cheap drum machine. There was enough polish, however, to make it sound sensational, especially when played loud. Can you tell I love this record?

The opening programmed drums of “I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All of My Life)” always get me, immediately thrusting me into the album’s beautiful contrast between mechanical music vs emotional voice and lyrics. All in all, Matt wrote great songs, enjoyable just for a sing-along or for deeper reflection and identification. Not mopey, as is the lazy assessment of this album. Just listen to “This is the Day” in the car on a sunny day with the windows down.

It didn’t get the greatest reception when it was released in 1983 but has been reassessed over the years as somewhat of a masterpiece. So much that it was released in a super deluxe edition which my wonderful husband got for me, featuring the originally intended tracklisting along with remixes and bonus tracks. A treasure.

And special mention of the artwork, created by Matt Johnson’s brother Andrew, was unlike anything seen before or since.

Album Challenge Day 8: Take That’s “Beautiful World”

Take That Beautiful World

This is the greatest pop band that America’s never heard of. And what a story!

Picture It: 1990. A British gay club in the middle of nowhere hosting a boyband of five straight lads, absolutely adorable even though their lead singer, Gary Barlow, thinks he’s fat and a bad dancer. Their manager, Nigel Martin-Smith, feels their path to stardom for his manufactured group is through the gays; he’s right because Take That eventually becomes a British phenomenon, unique in singing mostly original material written by Barlow (although they have huge hits with some excellent covers such as “It Only Takes A Minute”, “Relight My Fire” and “Could It Be Magic”). However, after three albums and loads of hits, they finally pierce the American market with “Back For Good” and then…disintegrate. One of their members, Robbie Williams, feeling undervalued, parties with the likes of Oasis, and eventually leaves. Barlow, his head bloated with self-importance, decides to go solo. Things go okay at first, but then his career goes down the kip while Robbie becomes an unlikely megastar.

Barlow hides in his mansion, humiliated by the press, eating his sorrows away; slowly, he begins to write and produce for other artists. In 2006, ten years after the group broke up, Gary feels Take That is ready for a comeback (without Robbie, though). Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past, Gary makes sure that the remaining members – Mark Owen, Jason Orange, and Howard Donald – take part in the songwriting and decision-making, a move that proves not just magnanimous but also artistically fruitful, resulting in the best album of Take That’s career, “Beautiful World”.

The public loves their comeback story and champions their return, taking both their first single, “Patience” and their album to No. 1. Here’s that first, career-resurrecting, single.

Proving it’s no fluke, their second single, a stunning stomper called “Shine”, also hits number one. The album through and through is filled with hit-worthy songs.

To top it all off, they release what proves to be the second biggest hit of their career, “Rule The World” (the first biggest nrinh “Back For Good”). Written for the film “Stardust”, it stays on the U.K. Top 100 for a year and a half.

Finally having learned to appreciate and value his talents and stardom, Barlow kept his ego in check and built upon this re-found success, eventually reconciling with Robbie and welcoming him back into Take That for one album and tour, branching out into TV and generally becoming a national icon.

Peter and I are massive fans of Gary, Robbie and Take That. We’ve seen them in concert together and apart in various configurations a number of times, marveling at their talent and the good feelings they generate. Hopefully the world will return to normal and we’ll get to see them again!

Album Challenge Day 7: Pet Shop Boys “Format”, Best B-Sides Ever!

Format

Why a b-sides collection instead of one of their remarkable albums “Please”, “Very” or “Yes”? Because Pet Shop Boys are perhaps the greatest b-side artists besides The Beatles. See what I did there?

Being so prolific, not everything can fit onto their albums – thus, hilarious, ironic, lyrically engrossing songs often get left as b-sides or bonus tracks on singles. To the great delight of us collectors.

Fun Fact: Their first b-sides collection, “Alternative”, would have been called “Besides” except that another band snatched that title so they had to find an alternative title. That 2-CD set consisted of 30 tracks, covering 1985-1995, followed by “Format”, covering 1996-2009 with a whopping 38 tracks. A third collection should follow, given recent amazing b-sides “An Open Mind”, “No Boundaries” and “Decide”.

I never thought they could top themselves after “Alternative” with classics such as “A Man Could Get Arrested”, “You Know Where You Went Wrong”, “Do I Have To”, “It Must Be Obvious”, “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend”, “Miserablism”, and “Shameless” along with covers “Losing My Mind” (guide vocal version for Liza Minelli), “If Love Were All”, and “Girls & Boys”.

But “Format” does best it – somehow – starting with accompanying b-sides for “Bilingual” including “The Truck-Driver and His Mate”, a banger with crunchy guitars and loving imagery of two men dancing in the moonlight, the wistful “Hit and Miss”, the lovely “The Calm Before the Storm”, the sublime “The View From Your Balcony”, the hilarious “The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On” (“Yo, Louis, You ain’t dancing for all these men…I’m gonna tell your mother!”), and the genius “Delusions of Grandeur”. And that’s just the extra tracks from one album!

This collection continues with “Closer To Heaven” extras such as “Nightlife” and “Friendly Fire”, through “Release” to “Fundamental” with the jammin’ “The Resurrectionist” – about body snatchers in England in the 18th and 19th century who dug up bodies for anatomists – on and on through their amazing album “Yes”.

It’s a smorgasbord for us very hungry Pet Shop Boys fans. How lucky we’ve been to have them in our lives for the past 35 years!

Album Challenge Day 6: The Smiths’ “Hatful of Hollow”

Hatful of Hollow

“How Soon Is Now”, The Smiths’ signature song, was a b-side and not on any proper album. That is, until it became a surprise hit across the world and was added – at least in the U.S. – to “Meat Is Murder”, their second album. Loving the song (hearing it in constant rotation on LA’s premiere pusher of the best ’80s music, KROQ), I rushed out and bought that album, which I loved, but also got “Hatful of Hollow”, a U.K. collection that acted like an early greatest hits, compiling John Peel radio sessions, non-album singles, b-sides, and “How Soons Is Now”. Wow, what an amazing album!

Although the album was in one sense cobbled together, there was a cohesiveness, much looser, deeper, sounding more authentically like The Smiths than their debut album which to me was poorly produced. Instead, this album captured Johnny Marr’s fully realized jangle, sounding like the streets of ’60s Manchester while also starkly ’80s, fused perfectly with Morrissey’s fully realized voice, not only in the sonic sense but as a lyricist, alternating between miserablism and arch hilarity. People who tried to dismiss The Smiths as “mopey” weren’t actually listening or paying attention. Ejits! Morrissey is imo one of the greatest lyricists ever.

Don’t make me choose favorites on this album! But if I must: “William, It Was Really Nothing”, “These Things Take Time”, “Handsome Devil” with its pleading “Let me get my hands, On your mammary glands”, “You’ve Got Everything Now”, “Accept Yourself” (very meaningful to me in my college years), the hypnotic “Reel Around The Fountain”, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” (of course), and this one, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”:

Album Challenge Day 5: “Rent”

Rent

As with many Broadway phenomenons, I didn’t see this in its original run. Instead, I had to wait until it got to L.A., without the original cast, but amazingly, with Neil Patrick Harris who played Mark Cohen. It wasn’t a big deal at the time (that guy from “Doogie Howser”???), but the show was so sturdy and songs so amazing that it proved that other casts could make the show fly.

The closest the rest of us mortals could get to the NYTW and Broadway productions with the original cast (Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, Taye Diggs!) was through the original cast album. And knowing that the world out there who heard about this remarkable show due to the tragic death of Jonathan Larson would be clamoring to hear it, the producers smartly took their time, produced it meticulously, with songs in full and not truncated, spread over two CDs. This was far from the one-day, sing-till-you’re-hoarse cast album recordings such as the one chronicled in D.A. Pennebaker’s film about “Company”.

And the songs are worth it. All of them. There isn’t one dud. There may be a few wince-inducing lyrics, but that is most likely because Larson died before he could perfect his masterpiece. But come on, all in one show? “Rent”, “One Song Glory”, “Light My Candle”, “Out Tonight”, “Another Day”, “WIll I?”, “I’ll Cover You”, “Take Me Or Leave Me”, “What You Own”, and of course two songs they featured in their Tony’s performance, “Seasons of Love” with “La Vie Boeheme”.