Tuesday, February 14, 2012

THE VOICE: The '80s Chanteuses (2 of 4)

There was a time when the great doo-wop vocal groups of the 50s and 60s were as faceless to music critics as they were to their audiences, partially due to their frequently shifting lineups. But in the 70s and 80s, certain music writers began to sit down with the catalogues of groups like The Coasters and the Dell-Vikings and The Diamonds and discover the names of their distinctive singers, and figure out seriously what made them great singers other than the fact that they weren’t Clyde McPhatter or Ben E. King. It was through this reinvestment in scholarship that we can now appreciate the vocal talents of the likes of Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, Fred Parris, Earl Carroll, Carl Gardner and Kripp Johnson.

The Beast thinks that now – some thirty years down the line – the same should be done for the first generation of great American synthpop/New Wave female vocalists of the early 1980s, the ones who weren’t named Tina or Madonna, the ones who popped up on MTV in one hit wonder bands and now pop up on the occasional reunion tour or nostalgia cruise. It seems an unfair fate to befall these superb vocal stylists, mostly because the music that accompanied them can sound so terribly dated to us now. So let’s give them their due.

As we were working on Part 1 of this series within a series, we realized how influential Pat Benatar was, something that only recently singers of newer generations started to cop to. (Joan Jett and Teena Marie were always the hipper names to drop.) One of Benatar’s best inheritors was Patty Smyth, who took the tough-cookie persona into New Wave territory when she led the Brooklyn-based power pop band Scandal from 1982 to 1985. Smyth’s lovely voice is the reason this band is even is still on the radio and not a mere rock & roll footnote for having a pre-fame Jon Bon Jovi as a guitarist for about five minutes. Their big claim to fame was 1982's “Goodbye To You,” in which Tom Welsch's punchy rubberband bass line is the only instrument that can match Smyth’s hit-the-road-jack vocals. But we always preferred the more restrained “Love’s Got a Line on You”:

Smyth's bluesy, crystalline wail is like erotic sandpaper, sounding very much influenced by Janis Joplin, Robert Plant and Heart's Ann Wilson. Her voice had a way of breaking in a compelling way, revealing the aches in a defiant pose, deepening lyrics that weren’t very deep to begin with. Unlike other vocalists of her ilk, Smyth didn’t wear her sex on her body but in that voice. Being a first-generation MTV staple, she of course was telegenic, with the oval-shaped face of a pixie but with a biker chick's sense of vulnerable command. She was a nightengale with a big yawp. This is why it becomes painfully obvious watching any of Scandal's videos that Columbia Records had no knowledge of how to market her.

This is why “The Warrior,” still sticks, despite the grim Big Label hypestorm that seemed bent on destroying this band by throwing tons of money and hackneyed concepts at it in hopes that something would stick. For one, it's essentially a rewrite of "Love's Got A Line on You." Second, it was on an album where the band's name had been changed – no doubt by a roomful of conference room suits – to ‘Scandal featuring Patti Smyth’ like she was Nutrasweet. Third, they threw her into what is quite possibly the worst video for a Top 10 song from that decade IN PERPETUITY:

Yet the song, despite all cynical attempts to the contrary, despite fatuous lyrics (“Shootin’ at the walls of heartache...”??) and a half-assed guitar break that kills the song's momentum dead in its tracks, is unforgettable for Smyth’s superb performance. Her defiant, operatic vocals are the only thing in this Reagan Decade hot mess that bring it's "A" game. As everything else fails around her, she still sings like a Warrior -- putting up with all the music industry lameness that money can buy. In microsm, this song is almost an essay on why the record industry became the immobile behemoth we know now.

And her success with Scandal was no fluke. After turning down an offer from Van Halen to replace David Lee Roth, she had a moderately successful solo career and later married crotchety tennis star John McEnroe. They gracefully never starred a reality show together.


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