1987 is the most important year in alternative rock

From chart hits to mainstream breakthroughs, it was the year modern rock came into its own

Why 1987 remains the most important moment in alternative rock
The Psychedelic Furs; Depeche Mode; Echo & the Bunnymen(Credit: Legacy/Sire)

The National has achieved many things in its career: music festival headlining slots, Grammy nominations and near-chart-topping albums. However, the brooding, Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati band hasn’t had a No. 1 single — until now.

Billboard reports “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” a song from the National’s forthcoming “Sleep Well Beast” album, reached the top slot of the Adult Alternative Songs chart for the week of August 19, beating Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” by a measly two spins.

In addition to the National and Arcade Fire, the rest of the Adult Alternative Songs chart top 10 includes a slew of seasoned artists: Portugal. The Man, Spoon, The War on Drugs, The Killers and Jack Johnson. Sonically, these acts don’t overlap much. However, on an aesthetic level, they all promulgate a musical approach predicated on constant metamorphosis.

The Killers’ “The Man” is an icy, funky strut; the War on Drugs’ “Holding On” is rife with sparkling Springsteenisms; Portugal. The Man’s “Feel it Still” is a taut, soulful shimmy. The biggest chameleons might be Spoon, whose latest effort is the ominous, funky “Can I Sit Next to You,” which feels like Duran Duran filtered through a paper shredder and pieced back together.

In a striking parallel, the composition of the Adult Alternative Songs chart — notably the abundance of veteran bands who are fearless about evolution — echoes the equally transformative alternative bands dotting 1987’s music landscape.

That’s not necessarily surprising: 1987 was an enormously influential year that shaped how fans and artists alike create, consume and appreciate so-called modern or progressive music.

To understand why 1987 is a cultural inflection, it’s best to consider it the year a burgeoning underground movement crystallized and mobilized. Certain facets of this movement were already in place, of course. Specialty national video shows such as MTV’s “120 Minutes” and “I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge” and USA’s “Night Flight,” as well as regional video shows (V66 in Boston and MV3 in Los Angeles) were already airing clips from new wave and so-called “college rock” bands. Modern rock-leaning radio stations — notably KROQ in Los Angeles and the Long Island powerhouse WLIR — were also giving these new groups a platform.

On a more mainstream level, John Hughes-associated movies such as 1984’s “Sixteen Candles” and 1986’s “Pretty in Pink” combined relatable depictions of teen angst with a cool-mixtape musical vibe. Hughes treated bands such as Thompson Twins, New Order, OMD and the Psychedelic Furs like futuristic pace-setters. The people responded in kind.

In 1986, OMD’s “If You Leave,” from Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” peaked at No. 4 on the U.S. pop charts. No wonder critic Chris Molanphy, writing in Maura Magazine, points to “how pivotal Hughes was in helping to break what became known as alternative rock in America — he served as a bridge between what was known in the first half of the ’80s as postpunk or new wave and what would be called alt-rock or indie rock by the ’90s.”

Hughes’ imprint reverberated well beyond films. For example, the movie “Pretty in Pink” took its title from the Psychedelic Furs song of the same name. Appropriately, the U.K. band re-cut the tune, which originally appeared on 1981’s “Talk Talk Talk,” for the film’s 1986 soundtrack. This slicker new version landed just outside the top 40, at No. 41. However, the goodwill earned by this re-do buoyed the Furs through 1987: The desperate swoon “Heartbreak Beat,” the lead single from the band’s 1987 LP, “Midnight to Midnight,” became the Furs’ only U.S. top 40 hit, peaking at No. 26 in May.

“Midnight to Midnight” polarized fans: A collection of full-on synth-pop gloss, it bears little resemblance to the group’s early, moody post-punk. Yet bold evolutions were a 1987 trend; multiple established modern and indie bands staked a decidedly contemporary claim, sometimes in ways that completely overhauled (or at least added intriguing new dimensions to) their previous sounds.

(Let the record show that this phenomenon also has precedent: For example, Scritti Politti’s glittering synth-pop gush “Perfect Way,” which reached the top 15 in 1986, is a far cry from the band’s scabrous post-punk roots.)

Elsewhere in 1987, Echo & The Bunnymen buffed up their gloom on a self-titled album with sharper production, while Depeche Mode countered with “Music for the Masses,” an (appropriately) massive-sounding record with a dense, industrial-synth sound. The Replacements, meanwhile, teamed up with producer Jim Dickinson for “Pleased to Meet Me,” their most streamlined and focused rock record yet. R.E.M. forged a production partnership with Scott Litt that would stretch into the ’90s, releasing the loud-and-proud political statement “Document.”

In many cases, these evolutions didn’t necessarily lead to immediate commercial dividends. In fact, the Smiths — inarguably one of the biggest cult alternative acts in the U.S. — broke up in 1987, making their forward-sounding final album, “Strangeways Here We Come,” a posthumous swan song. However, in 1987, the upper reaches of the pop charts were noticeably more amenable to modern bands.

 Consider this a culmination of a slow and steady trend — how the chart inroads made by OMD and the Psychedelic Furs paired with those made by Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls” hit No. 1 in 1986) and INXS (who set the stage for its blockbuster 1987 record “Kick” with 1985’s top 5 smash “What You Need”).

“Just Like Heaven,” from 1987’s “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me,” became The Cure‘s first U.S. mainstream top 40 chart hit, peaking at No. 40 in 1988. The shimmering 1987 synth-pop gem “True Faith” also became New Order’s first top 40 single, landing at No. 32. Other bands found even greater success: Midnight Oil’s “Diesel and Dust” spawned that band’s first mainstream hit, the top 20 entry “Beds Are Burning,” while R.E.M. landed its first top 10 single with “The One I Love” from “Document.” Los Lobos’ cover of “La Bamba” hit No. 1 (though having a major Hollywood movie behind them helped tremendously).

What’s interesting: Besides individual radio station charts and specialized trade magazines, these alternative acts didn’t yet have a dedicated Billboard chart. The publication only launched its Modern Rock Tracks chart on Sept. 10, 1988, “in response to industry demand for consistent information on alternative airplay,” as it noted in that week’s issue. In hindsight, it’s easy to see this chart as a reaction to 1987’s alternative groundswell. The influence of these groups was now impossible to ignore, and measuring their reach and impact — no doubt crucial for label bean counters, if nothing else — made sense.

In an interesting twist, 1987’s beginnings and endings were as formative as their transformations. That year’s dissolution of the Smiths and Hüsker Dü led to each band’s frontman — Morrissey and Bob Mould, respectively — launching fruitful and vibrant solo careers that endure today. Debut records from Jane’s Addiction (a self-titled effort) and Pixies (“Come On Pilgrim”), and second albums from Dinosaur Jr (“You’re Living All Over Me”) and Faith No More (“Introduce Yourself”) put forth an aggressive, hybridized rock sound that presaged ’90s grunge, metal and punk. Even Crowded House’s 1986 debut LP finally spawned two hits in 1987, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong.”

And, in terms of the touring circuit, plenty of popular 1987 acts continue to find success; U2 playing 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” to packed stadiums is the most obvious one. Depeche Mode is currently embarking on an amphitheater tour while Echo & the Bunnymen and Violent Femmes have toured sheds together all summer. In spring 2017, Psychedelic Furs tapped Robyn Hitchcock as an opener. In the fall, the band is teaming up with Bash & Pop, featuring the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, for tour dates.

These tour dates in particular have led several writers to recently question whether “80s pop” or “classic alternative” could become the new classic rock. It’s an intriguing idea, although one the radio consultants at Jacobs Media doubt has traction.

“While these bands may do well at state fairs and other summer festivals boasting well-stocked lineups of bands, their ability to support a format is questionable,” Fred Jacobs wrote in a recent blog post. “Classic Rock — and its derivatives — as well as Oldies stations were predicated on the power of nostalgia — not just for a few thousand fans in a market, but for tens of thousands or more of die-hard supporters. We’re talking mass appeal vs. niche.”

Jacobs then went on to point out that Echo & The Bunnymen received only seven spins on a Classic Alternative station in a recent week. “It’s hard to create a groundswell of support for poorly exposed music that’s now 30+ years old,” Jacobs adds.

In a sense, current successful bands like Arcade Fire, Spoon and the National are better positioned than their 1987 analogs to avoid this trap. Multiple channels — radio, video, streaming, live shows — make it easier for bands to gain exposure and reach more people.

At the same time, 2017’s fractured musical culture means that there are plenty of people who either don’t listen (or don’t need to listen) to any of these bands. For proof, just look at the puzzled reactions to Arcade Fire nabbing the Album of the Year Grammy in 2011. One person’s mainstream band is another’s niche or unknown act. Perhaps the underlying concept that drove alternative music culture’s 1987 rise — the mainstream cracking the door open to outsiders — is still alive and well in 2017.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

Will the Trump team disasters finally put an end to the businessman myth?

Greed is not good:

The idea that businessmen are better equipped to run the country is why our nation is poised for catastrophe

 

If you were wondering exactly how Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci was able to weasel his way into the White House, you have to recall that he wasn’t only a Donald Trump sycophant; he was also touted as a businessman who could “fix” problems career politicians couldn’t. This is the guy who asked Barack Obama what he planned to do about the way that Wall Streeters were being treated like piñatas during a town hall in 2010. And it is the same guy who dropped $100,000 to appear in the sequel to Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” the film that brought us Gordon Gekko and his famous line, “Greed is good.”

Forget that Gekko ultimately lands in jail or that the sequel is also designed to make us aware of the unethical behavior of Wall Street types, the Mooch wanted in on “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” so badly he was willing to pay a yuuge sum of money for a chance to appear in two brief cameos that amounted to around 15 seconds of screen time. The Mooch wasn’t the only businessman that wanted in on the film. Trump was also set to appear in it, but his scene was eventually cut.

The story of The Mooch and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is an apt tale to help illustrate how weirdly confused our nation has become over the myth of the businessman. Even though both of Stone’s films focus on how the folks working in Wall Street are crooked, dodgy and dangerous, they each managed to build an aura around the cult of the businessman. Gekko is a criminal, but everyone loves his “greed is good” swagger.

For some bizarre reason the public is aware that businessmen, whether they work on Wall Street or are New York real estate moguls, are often shady, greedy and selfish, but they still believe somehow that they possess critical and valuable skills that could transfer to running government. There is the public sense that businessmen are effective leaders despite overwhelming evidence that businessmen can and have been vile, corrupt and incompetent.

Generalizations are always a fraught enterprise: clearly not all businessmen are terrible people, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the mistaken idea that businessmen are better equipped to run the country is exactly why our nation is poised for catastrophe. And that’s not an exaggeration. We literally have a government being run by a kakistocracy that has no idea whatsoever what they are doing.

I’m not trying to put politicians on a pedestal here either. But there is a basic difference between people trained to accumulate profit and people trained to foster public support.

Our nation has long held the notion that businessmen are more skilled and trustworthy than politicians. Public trust in government is at a historic low of 20 percent. Even more shocking, a 2015 Gallup poll showed that the public trusted stockbrokers more than senators.

We can track the legend of the businessman back to the Gilded Age or to Ayn Rand or to Ross Perot, but regardless of its historic origin, the key question is whether the complete and utter disaster that is the Donald Trump administration will finally put an end to the delusion that a business background naturally prepares one to hold public office.

Days before the inauguration, Trump stated, “I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.” On the campaign trail we heard repeatedly that he had skills and training that would help him do a better job as president than our nation had ever seen before. In fact his entire campaign was centered on the idea that his business background would not only be adequate, but would actually be better suited to a successful presidency than political experience.

Within months of taking on his new job, Trump later remarked, “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.” It was a clear sign that he didn’t have the slightest clue what the job of president actually entails.

There has been much reflection on how a bigoted blowhard managed to win the election, but there has not been enough attention to the fact that the bigoted blowhard had absolutely no training for the job. Trump is the first person ever elected to the office of president in our nation that has not either served in the military or held public office.

It’s hard to know where to start when describing the stunning failures surrounding the Donald Trump presidency. From hiring competent staff, to identifying the components of the nuclear triad, to hosting heads of state, to launching a legislative agenda, Trump has been a disaster on all fronts.

Put simply, there is not one facet of the job of president that Trump seems to have gotten even remotely right. Only a few months into the job it was stunningly clear that Trump wasn’t just addicted to attention and overwhelmed by poor impulse control, but that he really didn’t understand the job he had been elected to do. In a piece for U.S. News and World Report, Robert Schlesinger marveled at “the litany of things that were apparently astonishing to the new president which would come as a surprise to no one who has paid more than a passing amount of attention to national and international affairs.”

Here’s the thing. Politicians make campaign promises all the time that they know full well they will have a hard time delivering. But Trump literally thought he could do things like terminate NAFTA, pull out of NATO and force China to control North Korea. And then there’s the jaw dropping moment when Trump blathered, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

The list is literally endless at this point. But part of the reason why it is so long is because Trump had no idea how the shared governance of a democracy functions or what it means to work with allies because in his businessman model he really can make absolute decisions without building consensus or making compromises. He has zero appreciation for the notion of the public good, of the value in supporting allies and of the need to respect the opinions of other leaders.

Much has been made about his authoritarian impulses and his dictatorial qualities. But face it; he would be a lousy dictator, too. Even despots know that they have to build alliances and garner popular support. Less than 200 days into his presidency, Trump is at a new all-time low in support with only about one-third of voters approving of him. Most dictators would be worried at those numbers, but Trump blusters on.

Meanwhile his constant threats to fire anyone he disagrees with have created a White House staff with more turnover than we have ever seen. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, FBI Director James Comey, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Communications Director Mike Dubke, Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci are only at the top of the list of those who have been fired or have resigned.

During the Obama era, Larry Sabato pointed out in Politico that between 1946 and 2014 there were only about 35 significant involuntary departures of top White House officials. Sure, presidents see considerable turnover when their administrations come under crisis, but the level of turnover in Trump’s team is directly tied to his “you’re fired” mentality. It’s also directly linked to his businessman swagger. And it’s a clear sign that he doesn’t have the leadership skills of a trained politician.

And that brings me back to The Mooch, yet another sign of a businessman who has no business in government. Back when he asked his question of Obama in 2010, Jon Stewart decided to do a bit on him for “The Daily Show.” Stewart quickly pointed out that the Mooch’s question about being a piñata was bizarre.

How could he characterize Wall Streeters as victims?  Hadn’t they been bailed out by the government? And hadn’t they actually done some pretty vile things to attract public outcry? As Stewart addressed the Mooch on camera he admonished him for characterizing himself as a piñata that had been whacked unfairly. “Until your papier-mâché bellies are no longer stuffed with government money, walk it off.”

The crazy part of that story, in keeping with the story of The Mooch paying to be in the sequel to “Wall Street,” is that seven years later this is the kind of guy who gets hired in the White House. The Mooch might be gone, but like the whack-a-mole that is the Trump team, you can be sure there is another one just like him waiting to pop up.

None of this mess gets better until this nation takes responsibility for its unfounded adoration of businessmen. The notion that a businessman is better at politics than a politician isn’t just wrong; it’s led to the Trump administration. And if that doesn’t kill the myth, I don’t know what can.

 

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

You may never hear anything from Prince’s vault of unreleased music

The fate of musical icon’s unreleased songs is less than clear

You may never hear anything from Prince's vault of unreleased music

Prince (Credit: AP/Liu Heung Shing)

Fans of the late musical icon Prince may never be able to admire the content stored inside two of the artist’s storage vaults due battles over rights to his estate, according to the New York Times.

When musician passed in April 2016, he left behind hundreds or even thousands of songs with no plan and no will. “But a conflict in Prince’s estate over a $31 million deal with Universal for music rights means that much of the vault may not see daylight for months or even years to come,” the Times reported.

Kevin W. Eide of Carver County District Court in Chaska, Minn., the judge overseeing Prince’s estate, described the conflict as “personal and corporate mayhem.”

At the beginning of the year things seemed to be on the right track, however, Universal decided it wanted to cancel its deal for Prince’s recorded music which would have included rights to most of the vault as well as those attached to later albums.

One of the most important things was “a timetable for obtaining American release rights for some of Prince’s early hits, after the expiration of existing deals with Warner Bros.,” the Times reported.

The Times explained:

Universal said that it had been “misled and likely defrauded” by representatives of Bremer Trust, the Minnesota bank charged with administering the estate, and demanded its money back. According to Universal, it learned after closing the deal that some of the rights it had paid for conflicted with those held by Warner, through a confidential deal that company signed with Prince in 2014.

Judge Eide has allowed Universal’s lawyers to finally view the Warner contract, and the company’s response is expected this week. Whatever happens, music executives say, the episode may harm the estate and complicate efforts to make another deal.

Some experts believe that no matter the ending, it will come with a price. “I don’t think there’s an outcome that is free of cost,” Lisa Alter, a copyright lawyer told the Times. Alter, however, is not involved with the case. But she also doesn’t believe there is an outcome “that is free of some damage to the estate in terms of throwing a cloud over what the rights really are.”

Music executives have said that it’s quite rare for a deal like Universal’s to be canceled. “And the story has become all the more riveting with allegations of mismanagement and deception on the part of estate representatives, including L. Londell McMillan, a lawyer who once represented Prince and was an adviser to Bremer,” the Times reported.

 

 

Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay

How to beat perfectionism

Percussionist Patti Niemi talks about enduring anxiety, rejection and how to handle failure and not fall apart

LISTEN: How to beat perfectionism

When you have lots of conversations with women like I do, a few themes start to emerge. One that comes up again and again is the pursuit of perfection.

Anxiety is the drumbeat to perfection, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, women are twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder than men, so perhaps it’s appropriate that I got explore its rhythms with Patti Niemi, a world-class musician and percussionist for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

She’s written a memoir about her experiences, called “Sticking It Out: From Juilliard to the Orchestra Pit,” and she spoke to me about how even now, after 25 years with the same orchestra — that’s 25 years without needing to audition, which is a major anxiety trigger for her — that perfectionism is still alive and well.

Niemi had been at Juilliard for two years when she sat down at a rehearsal and suddenly realized she had no control over her hands. She had been playing percussion since the age of ten, had participated in hundreds of rehearsals and countless performances, but had never experienced something like this before.

“Physically, what it feels like is you’re just going off the rails, and about to lose your mind,” she says, looking back on her old panic.

A painful inner monologue kept the engine going. It went like this: “I need to be perfect, I can’t be perfect, therefore what am I going to do?” And then, “Back to, I need to be perfect. It’s a long hard dialogue,” she says.

She says her anxiety got really bad at Juilliard because she suddenly realized how high the stakes were. “I felt like I suddenly had something to lose.”

She ended up using Inderal, a beta blocker, to calm her nerves so she could focus during an auditions and move forward.

During her last year there, an older male professor told Niemi that he had fallen in love with her. She was deeply uncomfortable and says it was “the perfect storm” of imbalanced power dynamics — and a sense of feeling trapped.

Listen to our conversation:
https://embed.radiopublic.com/e?if=inflection-point-with-lauren-schiller-6NkYz8&ge=s1!7a4126191ee956161c1af5eeac2ce277adb68f8c

“Here you have a very powerful mentor an hour a week alone, and they have this power over you,” she says. “A teacher can recommend you for a certain audition if you weren’t able to get in to the audition,” at first. “I mean, they still have a lot of power as far as jobs go.”

Like Anita Hill did with Clarence Thomas, Niemi continued to work with her professor, and even go out to dinner with him. “It didn’t occur to me not to,” she says now. “I need to manage it, “ she thought at the time — and attempted to control the situation by asking her professor lots of questions about percussion and avoiding talking about anything else. “I just thought if I made him mad he would retaliate.”

Niemi says she’s heartened to see that things are different for women in universities now. Back then, in the late ’80s, she says there was no mechanism at the school for her to share what was going on. “It just wasn’t talked about,” she says.

“It still happens but now you’re told very clearly these are the lines you can’t cross. This is what you can’t do. And to be fair to him, he wasn’t told that, how it worked at the time.”

Niemi’s anxiety appeared well before the period her professor told her he was in love with her, but his “confession” did nothing to ease it.

“It had a pretty strong effect on me physically,” she says. Eventually she developed an ulcer. That anxiety came out most of all during her auditions.

In spite of her uncomfortable relationship with her professor, Niemi decided to stay on at Juilliard in their graduate program. “I started a master’s program mostly because living in New York and not having a place to practice for production is very difficult,” she told me. But after a few weeks, being around her teacher became overwhelming.

A few months in she braved another audition and succeeded in landing a position with the then-new New World Symphony, which accomplished two things for her: she was able to get away from her professor and she finally accomplished what she had set out to do from the age of 10 — live and work as a professional musician. But her professional aspirations were not yet complete. The New World Symphony is a training ensemble, and the participants are expected to continue to audition for permanent positions elsewhere.

In spite of the great lengths Niemi went to manage her anxiety and perfectionist standards, after a number of auditions she almost won but didn’t, she finally lost it. “My room got messy,” she writes in her memoir. “I didn’t care enough to clean it. While I was practicing for the Boston audition, it had been filled with instruments. Now the floor space was covered with dirty clothes. I let dishes sit in the sink until the silverware rusted, and a little white mouse appeared from behind my bookcase one day. I had been sitting at my table so immobile he probably assumed I was one of the chairs. He darted away only when I screamed.”

Niemi says it’s important to talk publicly about anxiety so that others don’t have to struggle as much as she did and because she says there is still stigma. “When I was in school it was so painful to me. I thought, I’m the only one doing this. Everybody else manages anxiety no problem.”

Twenty-five years ago she earned a spot with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and has played with them ever since.

During complicated performances, the old feelings return sometimes. Here’s how she described awaiting her moment in the orchestra pit for a cymbal crash: “Sitting there, trying to keep track, watching the singers up on stage, and it’s getting closer and closer. Finally, I’m counting down, I’m listening to the music. I’m waiting for my moment. I stand up I take these big hunks of metal I’m about to fling at one another and I wait for the moment and the conductor lowers the baton.”

Even after two and a half decades, “I know I have to be perfect in this moment and it has to happen.”

Niemi has tempered her anxiety with wisdom. She’s accepted that to do anything in life truly meaningful, failure comes with the territory. “Rejection is a gift,” she says.

“You are going to fail. It’s how you handle the failure to be perfect that you have to manage.”

When I asked Niemi if she has ever had a moment where she asked herself why she stays in a field that makes her feel this anxious, she said, “I always wanted to do it. It was so hard. But I never questioned whether I was going to do it. I worried about that in the book because I put so much emphasis on the hard parts of it that I would that come off sounding like I was ungrateful or I didn’t appreciate this opportunity I had. I’ve never felt ungrateful. I loved music. I love it. And I was really lucky to fall into this opportunity. I wanted to write about what was hard about it.”

Lauren Schiller is the Executive Producer of Audio for Salon.com and the creator and host of Inflection Point, a public radio show and podcast about how women rise up.

The sadism, compassion and sheer liberated joy of “Like a Rolling Stone”

How Bob Dylan took a “long piece of vomit about twenty pages long” and turned it into a six-minute masterpiece

The sadism, compassion and sheer liberated joy of "Like a Rolling Stone"
(Credit: AP/Bloomsbury Publishing/Salon)
Excerpted from “Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited” by Mark Polizzotti (Continuum, 2006). Reprinted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing.

It has to be the most celebrated drumbeat in all of popular music. Often described in ballistic terms—a “rifle shot,” a “gunshot”—Bobby Gregg’s inaugural smack is indeed the shot heard ’round the world. “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA,” Bruce Springsteen recalled twenty-four years after the fact, “and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Greil Marcus, in his penetrating if overwrought study of “Like a Rolling Stone,” contends that while many other songs use the same kick-off—including the Beatles’ “Any Time at All” from the previous year and Dylan’s own “From a Buick 6” further down Highway 61—“on no other record does the sound, or the act, so call attention to itself, as an absolute announcement that something new has begun.” This might be overstating the case somewhat: as Al Kooper reminded Marcus, it’s very common for the drummer to end a one-two-three-four count with a sharp thwack. Still, there is something about this particular beat that makes it more than simple timekeeping, that renders it more memorable. Somehow, a common device has turned itself into a signature. If you heard only this one second of “Like a Rolling Stone,” you could still identify the song.

This drumbeat has become so associated with the song, in fact, that its presence or absence directly inflects upon the character of the performance. “Like a Rolling Stone” was the invariable closer of Dylan’s 1966 world tour. One can almost gauge the degree of exasperation he felt on any given night over the catcalls that greeted his electric set by the emphasis that drummer Mickey Jones placed on his opening salvo. It echoes authoritatively in Edinburgh. It booms with smashing finality in the valedictory concert at Albert Hall, following a drawling introduction in which Dylan dedicates the song to “the Taj Mahawwwl.” And it positively deafens with scorn following the legendary “Judas!—You’re a LIAR” exchange between Dylan and disgruntled fan Keith Butler at the Manchester Free Trade Hall ten days earlier, which triggered Dylan’s exhortation to the band to “play fuckin’ loud.” Its absence in favor of a cranking instrumental build-up, in the version played at the Isle of Wight in 1969, was one of the reasons for that performance often being tagged as lifeless. (Oddly, the version played at the infamous Newport concert, only weeks after the studio version was recorded and with many of the same musicians, also foregoes the opening bang: it made enough of a statement as it was.) Among the many, many covers of the song, one by the band Drive-By Truckers is notable in that it begins with a similar drum shot, which then rests for a few bars, imbuing their entire rendition with a kind of we-know-you-know slyness.

In fact, the famous drumbeat is actually two beats, the resounding snap of the snare followed by the almost subliminally faint echo of a kick-drum, which makes the whole thing take a half-step back and gives it an extra push of forward momentum: not ONE-(pause)-TWO, but ONE-two-THREE. Marcus, again, tends to oversell when he likens “the empty split-second that follows” the initial beat (but that’s just it: it’s not empty) to both “a house tumbling over a cliff ” and the Oklahoma Land Rush. What he’s missing in his own rush to hyperbole is the way that half-heard second beat pulls in, eases in, the onslaught of guitar, piano, organ, bass, and drum that henceforth sends the song—and the album it starts off with a literal bang—charging forward.

“Like a Rolling Stone” is also no doubt the most famous song ever written out of sheer boredom. Dylan had spent April and May 1965 in England, for what would be his last fully acoustic tour. Both the performances and the time surrounding them, captured in D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Dont Look Back (the title’s lack of apostrophe mirroring Dylan’s idiosyncratic approach to punctuation), show a man barely going through the motions. Dylan is in control of his material and his audience, but there is no spontaneity and little verve. Even supposedly off-the-cuff remarks (“This one is called ‘It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’—ho ho ho” [audience laughs]) have been rehearsed many times before. By the time he returned to the States at the beginning of June, he was considering giving up performing altogether. “I was very drained,” he explained [in a Playboy interview] several months later. “I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing.… It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.”

What changed his mind, he said, was the new musical vista opened by “Rolling Stone.” “I’d literally quit singing and playing,” he told Martin Bronstein of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “and I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit about twenty pages long, and out of it I took ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and made it as a single. And I’d never written anything like that before.” As he described it to Jules Siegel, the “vomit” began as simple prose ramblings: “It wasn’t called anything, just a rhythm thing on paper… I had never thought of it as a song, until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing, ‘How does it feel?’ in a slow motion pace, in the utmost of slow motion following something.”

Dylan’s interviews are notoriously unreliable sources of information, more like theatrical performances than communication sessions, and perhaps none more so than the ones he gave around the release of Highway 61. But what emerges consistently from his remarks about “Rolling Stone,” in addition to his pleasure at having written it—“the best song I wrote,” he told Gleason—is the sense of spontaneity regained, of an elusive but thrilling encounter with the muse. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that,” he recalled in 2004, with a note of wistfulness as if speaking of a long time gone. “It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.” To television commentator Ed Bradley that same year, he described the songs of this period as having come from “a place of magic.”

In this case, the magic seems to have been triggered precisely by the creative stagnation Dylan had been feeling (and that his records had been showing) over the previous two years. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is well-crafted but resolutely downbeat, more like medicine than entertainment, while Another Side, despite a few stand-outs, just sounds bored. Little wonder that by the time Dylan returned from his all-acoustic British tour, he’d decided to give it all up—or that the inspiration of “Rolling Stone” seemed such a godsend. It ushered in a creative outpouring that is almost unrivaled in Dylan’s career (let alone anyone else’s), and that over the following half-year resulted in many of the songs on which his reputation still stands.

Also rare for a chart-topping pop hit, the lyrics focused not on love but its opposite. It was “all about my steady hatred directed at some point that was honest,” Dylan told Siegel, immediately amending that to: “In the end it wasn’t hatred, it was telling someone something they didn’t know, telling them they were lucky. Revenge, that’s a better word… It was like swimming in lava. In your eyesight, you see your victim swimming in lava. Hanging by their arms from a birch tree.” Lucky in lava is not the same as lucky in love, but the contradiction is very much in keeping with the spirit of “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that manages to balance sadism, compassion, and sheer liberated joy in a six-minute display of pure bravado.

Debbie Harry opens up about working with Sia and Blondie’s new album

The singer shared stories about collaborating with everyone from Johnny Mars to Charli XCX on “Pollinator”

Debbie Harry opens up about working with Sia and Blondie's new album
Blondie (Credit: Alexander Thompson)

As the ’80s dawned, Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry and electro impresario Giorgio Moroder teamed up to write “Call Me.” Its stomping beats and slashing guitars made for a No. 1 hit.

When Blondie set out to make the record “Pollinator,” the band members again looked outward for collaborators, pulling in some of the most exciting, innovative pop songwriters working today.

As a whole, the stellar “Pollinator” captures the same sense of excitement and possibility of the group’s early experimentations with the then-nascent genres of  hip-hop and synth-pop thanks in part to a collection of stellar collaborators. Blockbuster singer and songwriter Sia and Strokes’ Nick Valensi co-wrote the effervescent new wave styled “Best Day Ever.” Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and Harry partnered on the pulsating, disco-pop standout “Long Time,” while Charli XCX co-wrote the punkish “Gravity.”

The rest of those contributing to “Pollinator” are similarly A list: Legendary guitarist Johnny Marr wrote and plays on the Brit-rock-tinged “My Monster,” while Joan Jett makes a cameo on the pile-driving punk-pop gem “Doom or Destroy.” John Roberts — a voiceover artist and musician known for his work with “Bob’s Burgers” — and the What Cheer? Brigade horn troupe add funk and pep to “Love Level,” a song Harry and Blondie guitarist and co-founder Chris Stein wrote together.

In all, “Pollinator” distills so many of the styles and approaches that Blondie has adopted over the years to great effect. The electro-charged “Fun” is already No. 1 on the Billboard U.S. Dance charts, and the band is teaming up with Garbage for the Rage and Rapture tour, that kicks off July 5 in Saratoga, California. It’s an inspired road pairing, as both groups boast top-notch musicianship and empowering feminist icons who are leading the charge.

Harry checked in with Salon for a brief chat about “Pollinator,” her new collaborators and why she can’t stop “pushing.”

As a musician and vocalist, what stood out to you about the songs that were brought to the band for consideration for the record. What did you guys really want to tackle and dive into?

We wanted to have a Sia song, ’cause we admire her so much. As far as the other ones go, it just had to do with whether we liked them and felt that they would be good Blondie songs.

Dev Hynes and Charli XCX are also on the record. What stands out to you about them as songwriters? 

I can’t really say — I think that they have an intuition, a personal intuition and ability to touch something that is a part of them. It really comes across as being, I don’t want to use the word soulful, but in actual fact, it reflects something from within themselves.

I agree with that. Everything they’ve done, there’s a lot of sincerity. And you can tell it’s coming from their heart — which is also kind of a cliché, but that’s what draws me to their music too.

Yes, yes, very much so. And [there’s a] Charli XCX song, I don’t know if you’ve heard this one, it’s called “Tonight.” She said she wrote that when she was 15. To me, the experience and the maturity that is reflected in her lyric is really outstanding. It’s not like a 15-year-old.

How did the Johnny Marr collaboration come about?

We had put out feelers, or questions or requests, through BMG, and he wrote that song for us. When I met him in London, he was talking about his kids a lot. And it’s very funny, after I learned that he was very involved as a parent, I could see how he could write that song. It’s very charming; it has this double meaning.

You and Chris Stein co-wrote “Love Level” together. John Roberts was on it, and then so is the What Cheer? Brigade. How’d that song come about?

I knew John from New York for years. He used to have a band called OPTI-GRAB, which I really loved. I really admired that little group that he had, it was just a three-piece, and it was very clever and beautifully written songs. They opened for us. So I’ve known John for a long time and then he moved to LA, he got that gig with Bob’s Burgers, you know. Voiceovers. He actually helped create the character of Linda.

As far as What Cheer?, I went to an event at P.S. 21 in Long Island City; they have art events. And I went to something there, and What Cheer? banged around and played, and I thought they were wonderful. It reminded me of marching bands or parade bands from New Orleans, and I’ve always loved that because it’s sort of loose but tight.

How did making the record in New York at the Magic Shop right before it closed influence the vibe of the record, if at all?

Well, I think that we were all moved to be a part of working there. It’s such an institution in New York. Although we had never worked there previously, we knew that [David] Bowie had finished “Blackstar” at the Magic Shop, and we’re all very moved and connected with him or by him, and it’s just a part of recording history. Since we’re such a New York-based band, to be a part of that, and to have the opportunity to record there historically is really great.

In terms of the tech part, the room is a very substantial, large room [and] has a great sound to it. It’s very, very warm. And it has a great board, a famous board. It’s just one of those places that doesn’t exist anymore.

Blondie is touring with Garbage this summer. Have you guys talked about doing any live collaborations or anything? 

No, we haven’t gotten that far. And I think that we will — I hope that we will — because that would be a really, really cool thing to do. And I have sort of been envisioning how we can collateralize this thing, you know. So, it’s in my mind. [Laughs.]

I really liked what you said in a recent interview about nostalgia not being really appealing to you. Especially as someone with an incredible body of music work, spanning decades, how do you balance the past with your tendency to always want to move forward?

Well, I don’t really have a problem with that. I’m proud to be part of popular music, modern music, of course. But I don’t know — I guess I have a strong sense of digestion. I like to hear things. I like to experience new things.

That’s the kind of life that I lead: I’m always pushing. I’m pushing, pushing, pushing. And I know that there will come a day when I have to sit back a little bit and not be striving so much. But, so far, that’s been my interest. I have a great band who, you know, we all share the same kind of feeling. It’s exciting. It makes it very, very exciting.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

Chris Cornell’s talents transcend the grunge genre he helped create

Chris Cornell, who committed suicide after a concert yesterday, was at the heart of the change in rock in the 1990s

Earlier this year Chris Cornell released a new solo single, “The Promise,” which doubles as the theme song to the new Christian Bale movie of the same name. Although orchestras curl up around the song’s main acoustic guitar melody, Cornell’s singing takes center stage. His voice, weathered like aged leather but not raspy or faltering, defies categorization: Cornell exhibits the confidence of a pop balladeer, the vulnerability of a folk singer and the weariness of a rock ‘n’ roll icon who’s seen it all.

“The Promise” marked the latest sonic iteration for Cornell, who committed suicide after Soundgarden’s Wednesday night show in Detroit. But this soundtrack song was hardly a surprising departure. Cornell lived what felt like a million musical lifetimes in his 30-plus-year career because he possessed the kind of versatile voice that gave him musical options outside hard rock.

“My history of singing has always probably been closer to a David Bowie approach than, for example, an AC/DC approach,” Cornell told Spin in 2014. “I never thought of myself as being the singer that wanted to create an identity and then stick to that. As a child, I was this record collector/listener that would sit in a room and listen to the entire Beatles catalog alone, over and over and over again.”

He added, “I think that affected my vocal approach because there were four singers in that band, and I never knew who was singing what. I was a little kid; I didn’t really care. I thought that’s what rock music was and I thought that’s what making an album was: You sang in the style and with the feel that the song was asking for.”

Still, Cornell was one of the few hard-rock singers who didn’t need a Plan B. As the frontman of Soundgarden, he steered the band’s dense amalgamations of classic rock, heavy metal and psychedelic rock with fearless gravitas. He’d slide from feral yowls to somber intonations, often in the same song, capturing the band’s roiling disquiet. Soundgarden was lumped into the grunge movement almost by default, but the band transcended this niche in large part because Cornell pushed it into more classic territory.

If anything, Cornell felt like the glue that held together Soundgarden’s disparate sonic textures and personalities together. That was one of his strengths as a band frontman — a fact that became clear when he moved on to front Audioslave, a group comprised of Rage Against the Machine’s instrumentalists. Cornell corralled Audioslave’s towering hard rock into something both fresh and timeless, by being a typically expressive vocalist: passionate and wary, cathartic and subdued.

Unlike many of his peers who had to work around unique or unorthodox voices, Cornell was a naturally charismatic singer with acrobatic range. Although open about his influences — namely, he was an avowed acolyte of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin — Cornell absorbed what he learned from these greats and spun this into his own strengths. It’s difficult to call someone so popular underrated or underappreciated, but Cornell’s presence was easy to take for granted, since he was such an ingrained part of rock ‘n’ roll culture.

Yet Cornell’s studious, malleable approach to music also made him a natural for moving beyond pure hard rock and into movie soundtrack work. He showed off a stunning, blues-influenced delivery — a torch singer’s croon, really — on “Misery Chain,” a duet with Joy Williams on the “12 Years a Slave” soundtrack. Cornell brought a rugged touch to “You Know My Name,” the theme of the 2006 James Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” and turned in a dusky, haunted vocal performance on the Golden Globe-nominated “The Keeper.”

Best of all, however, is “Sunshower,” a lost classic on 1998’s “Great Expectations” soundtrack. The psychedelic-tinged acoustic pop song boasts one of Cornell’s most commanding and naked vocal performances:  “When you’re all in pain/ And you feel the rain come down,” he sings, his voice cracking with anguish. “Oh, it’s all right/ When you find your way/ Then you see it disappear/ Oh, it’s all right.” “Sunshower” is both comforting and despairing; Cornell gives into emotional pain, while also reminding himself that these feelings are temporary.

As this song underscores, Cornell’s solo work was rewarding for listeners in entirely different ways — bare and vulnerable and often so intimate that it felt like an intrusion to listen. (His 1999 solo album, “Euphoria Mourning,” is a particularly underrated collection.) But Cornell flourished with this approach, especially when performing live. Like another one of his idols, Elvis Costello, he embarked on marathon solo shows, where he could cover favorite songs (John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”), tell stories and dip into different corners of his catalog. For some artists, acoustic shows are a necessary evil; Cornell, however, was comfortable being alone.

About the only solo departure that didn’t work was “Scream,” a widely derided, electro-leaning 2009 album produced by Timbaland. The lukewarm reception had less to do with Cornell’s performances, however, and more to do with biases against rockers going pop. And this didn’t hurt his career: All told, Cornell dominated mainstream rock radio throughout the ’90s and well into the 2000s, making him as much the patriarch of modern heavy and hard rock as Eddie Vedder, and the late Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley.

In fact, as Salon’s Gabriel Bell pointed out, “Cornell’s death marks the passing of yet another voice and face familiar to those who grew up witnessing the profound changes rock music underwent in the early 1990s.” It’s shocking and jarring that another one of these familiar icons is gone, especially in the midst of what appeared to be a successful Soundgarden tour. The band was due to headline Friday night during the sold-out Rock on the Range festival in Columbus, Ohio.

On my Facebook page, no two people were posting the same Cornell-associated song, another testament to the breadth and depth of his career. Yet whether performing snarling hard rock or plaintive acoustic folk, Cornell exuded melancholy, anxiety and desolation via his voice. Even early on in Soundgarden’s career, when his fondness for Robert Plant was most evident, Cornell sounded like an old soul, his angst coming from a deep, unknown place. He was a great singer because of his empathy — an innate characteristic that can’t be taught, but something he possessed in spades.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.