Photo: Deborah Feingold | Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment
Bob Dylan's Latest Box Set Proves He Remained Stellar In The '80s. These '60s Classic Rock Artists Did, Too.
What do you think of when you consider 1960s artists in the '80s? Washed up, adrift, lost in a sea of emerging technology? You're not alone — Bob Dylan considered himself as such in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles.
"I hadn't actually disappeared from the scene, but the road had narrowed," he wrote. "There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him." (He also calls himself "whitewashed and wasted out professionally" and "in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion.")
This is coming from the guy who gave us "Every Grain of Sand," "Jokerman" and "Blind Willie McTell" during that decade, went full wild-eyed Christian-preacher mode in concert, and destroyed the universe on "Late Night With David Letterman" backed by fiery punk band the Plugz. Whatever his internal state at the time, he was selling his creative output short.
This suspicion — or conviction — that true Dylan heads have always had is now Gospel truth. Springtime in New York, a five-disc smorgasbord that arrived in September, strips away the sometimes-overbearing production of albums like Empire Burlesque, revealing their core components: Dylan in the midst of a spiritual awakening, backed by killer accompanists like the Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler.
So, Dylan has been handed a liferaft from the '80s, a decade thought too often as a sinking ship for him and his contemporaries. Sure, some '60s artists hit creative snags in big ways, and admit as much. Paul McCartney's film and soundtrack Give My Regards to Broad Street didn't quite make it out of the era; the now-prolific David Crosby only released one album, Oh Yes I Can; so on and so forth.
But does this hold true for George Harrison, who rejoined the music industry with a blazing smile on Cloud Nine? What about the Kinks, who handled the curves of the arena-rock and punk eras then hit a grand slam with State of Confusion? Or Jethro Tull, whose Crest of a Knave earned them their first GRAMMY (to the chagrin of Metallica fans)?
Clearly, there's a larger disconnect at play. So let's examine 10 excellent albums by artists most associated with the '60s who put out great work in the '80s.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono — Double Fantasy (1980)
Believe it or not, Lennon's final album — the one that gave us jewels like "(Just Like) Starting Over," "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" and "Watching the Wheels" — earned scathing reviews upon its release.
NME, in particular, wished Lennon had "kept his big happy trap shut until he had something to say that was even vaguely relevant to those of us not married to Yoko Ono." The critics changed their tune after Lennon's slaying mere weeks after its release. But even if he were still with us (and how sweet would that be?), Double Fantasy would remain a milestone.
Picture this: After four chaotic decades in which Lennon lost his mother young and made (and unmade) the most significant rock band of all time, he had a transformative experience on a yacht from Rhode Island to Bermuda, in which a severe tempest forced him to take the wheel alone for several hours. He whooped sea shanties and took it as a baptism.
"I was so centred after the experience at sea that I was tuned in to the cosmos – and all these songs came!" he later said. They were unlike any others he'd written.
The Rolling Stones — Tattoo You (1981)
It's fascinating to watch the "Beatles or Stones?" debate percolating in the media again, because we get to be reminded of how it's a false dichotomy.
"The Rolling Stones [are] a big concert band in other decades and other areas when the Beatles never even did an arena tour or Madison Square Garden with a decent sound system," Mick Jagger said recently. "They broke up before that business started — the touring business for real."
As the Stones' ultimate stadium-rock monument, Tattoo You has always been well-regarded in their discography. But now that a new 40th Anniversary Edition — released in October via Polydor/Interscope/UMe — offers us a fresh remaster, we can remember that the true integrity of the album is in the songs.
"Start Me Up" has taken on new life in a variety of advertisements, from Windows 95 to the Summer Olympics, and that's because its hook and riff are unforgettable. And "Waiting on a Friend" remains one of their most heart-tugging and elusive tunes — one that only 20-something skirt-chasers could write after deepening and wizening with age.
Joni Mitchell — Wild Things Run Fast (1982)
Coming off her imperial run of albums in the '70s, Mitchell was a bit muted in the '80s.
Synth-pop production and era-specific politicking had a freezing effect on 1985's Dog Eat Dog; 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm leaned heavily on duets with Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Don Henley, and other superstars. (Still, don't write off that last one — Courtney Barnett's a vocal fan!)
That said, her first album of the decade, Wild Things Run Fast, is an imperfect yet deeply satisfying album with distinguished collaborators, like saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist Steve Lukather and bassist (and then-husband) Larry Klein.
"Chinese Café" is one of her most underrated, luminous album openers ever, segueing gracefully into the romantic standard "Unchained Melody." And the gems keep coming, from the exquisite "Moon at the Window" to the percolating "Be Cool."
Overall, if you skip the squealing guitars on "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care" and "You Dream Flat Tires" on Side 2, Wild Things Run Fast fits snugly with her '70s fusion-era masterworks.
The Kinks — State of Confusion (1983)
As only brothers in an all-time-classic rock band could experience, Ray and Dave Davies have had a fractious relationship for decades, both creatively and personally.
Not only was their band, the Kinks, banned from American stages at the height of their fame, but their fraternal tensions led to bizarre incidents like when Ray stamped on Dave's 50th birthday cake.
Today, they're getting along famously and working on new music. But through all the noise in the press, it's worth remembering that the Kinks weathered fundamental shifts in the music industry better than many of their peers. Dave's 1984 tune for the band, "Living on a Thin Line," is a perfect example — it was even featured three times in a classic Sopranos episode.
Also worth celebrating from their '80s period: State of Confusion, a gleaming pop album with hints of punk and new wave. "Long Distance" and "Come Dancing" are the obvious classics of the bunch — Rolling Stone called the former "astonishingly Dylanesque," and the latter, a memory-lane ode to their late sister, Rene, was their biggest hit in more than a decade.
But throw on the whole program and then spelunk deeper into the Kinks' '80s output. You won't be disappointed.
Yes — 90125 (1983)
Breathe a sigh of relief: Many of the greatest prog bands are still with us in the 21st century. Jethro Tull have their first album in decades out soon; Genesis are currently circling the globe on a thrilling reunion tour; the indefatigable Yes just released The Quest.
The latter band has experienced uncommon longevity, having weathered the deaths of key members Chris Squire and Peter Banks and only taking relatively brief hiatuses during their 53-year run. And like King Crimson, Yes only seemed to grow teeth as the '80s dawned.
The new-wavey album marked the return of the honeyed singer Jon Anderson, who had left in 1980. And "Owner of a Lonely Heart," especially, was a thrilling costume change that helped prove Yes could easily retrofit their elaborate jams into danceable pop.
The Beach Boys — The Beach Boys (1985)
Becoming a Beach Boys diehard is a three-pronged process: you get into the experimental '60s material, you realize the early pop hits and '70s albums rule as well, and then their entire history unveils itself as one gorgeous, flawed continuum.
This love story between you and America's Band also means getting to know their central angel: Carl Wilson. When their resident innovator, Brian Wilson, began to fade into the background in the late '60s, his brother stepped in as the band's lionhearted musical director until his 1998 death.
Granted, the Beach Boys' '80s period isn't the first era you should check out, per se. But it doesn't deserve outright dismissal by any means. Their self-titled record, the first since drummer (and middle Wilson brother) Dennis' drowning, carries hard-won poignancy that makes it an essential listen.
Three tunes especially deserve your attention: "Getcha Back," a driving co-write between Mike Love and Terry Melcher; "She Believes in Love Again," a heartfelt Bruce Johnston ballad with a charming yacht-rock veneer; and the elliptical "Where I Belong," which Carl never believed he truly finished.
Jethro Tull — Crest of a Knave (1987)
By now, Crest of a Knave is saddled with the reputation of besting Metallica's …And Justice For All in a GRAMMY category some believed they shouldn't have been in: Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental. (Tull leader Ian Anderson cheekily responded by taking out a Billboard ad reading "The flute is a heavy, metal instrument.")
This is a shame for multiple reasons. Not only is Crest one of Tull's heaviest albums — especially the skyscraping opener "Steel Monkey" — but it contains stone-cold Tull classics throughout. Here, the '80s textures are a feature, not a bug; the sequencers and programming underpin Anderson's songs, which are often set against urban sprawl.
In "Steel Monkey," a knuckleheaded high-rise worker touts his sexual prowess; in "Farm on the Freeway," a profitable farmer loses his generational land to steel and asphalt; in the exquisite "Said She Was a Dancer," an aging Western rock star (Anderson himself?) unsuccessfully hits on an emotionally distant Muscovite.
George Harrison — Cloud Nine (1987)
Harrison was more solid in the '80s than you might think: the Traveling Wilburys and Somewhere in England's "Life Itself" are alone worth the price of admission.
But any discussion of his output during the decade must begin with Cloud Nine, conceived and marketed as his comeback. Make fun of the album cover all you want — it radiates positive vibes and perfectly advertises the colorful, Jeff-Lynne-produced music therein.
"That's What It Takes" is an elevating ode to resilience; "Fish on the Sand" makes one wish he did a chunky Byrds thing more often; the jubilant "Got My Mind Set on You" (including its video) is a psychological tonic for anyone going through it.
Cloud Nine would be the final album Harrison would release during his lifetime; his posthumous 2002 album Brainwashed is equally, if not more radiant. What a treat for Harrison fans, that after a few half-engaged '70s albums borne of frustration with the music industry, he reminded the world he had what it took.
Neil Young — Bluenote Café (2015, r. 1987-88)
1981's Re·ac·tor and 1982's Trans have aged fabulously, touching on electronic music and krautrock while tenderly addressing Young's communication breakdown with his nonverbal son, Ben. Then, there's 1988's This Note's For You, his swinging, bluesy takedown of corporate sponsorship.
He made that album with the Bluenotes, an assortment of old affiliates outfitted with a brass and reeds section. While it's a worthy curiosity today, Bluenote Café, an archival live album containing selections from Young's tours with the Bluenotes, is thrilling in a whole new way.
Throughout, the horns aren't just a pastiche — they legitimately rock. After 23 mighty, blaring songs, including his Freedom classic "Crime in the City" and underrated epic "Ordinary People," you might feel pleasantly exhausted.
That said, if you're not right there with the audience member shrieking "Woooo!" during "Welcome to the Big Room," you might be made of stone. If you're seeking out selections from Young's ever-growing Archives series, miss this one at your peril.
Lou Reed — New York (1989)
The adjective most often pinned on Lou Reed is "streetwise," but New York takes that tag and defines it literally. The rudimentary chord progressions, learnable after three guitar lessons, seem etched in chalk; the dense torrents of lyrics illustrate Reagan-era America.
"Those downtown hoods are no damn good/ Those Italians need a lesson to be taught/ This cop who died in Harlem/ You think they'd get the warnin'," the Velvet Underground leader intones in "Romeo Had Juliette," and the details spill out from there like that unfortunate law officer's blood.
Really, New York feels less like a rock record than a work of dense, engrossing journalism; no matter where or when you commune with it, there you are — right amid the social unrest and urban decay he's describing.
"Outside the city shrieking, screaming, whispering/ The mysteries of life," goes "Xmas in February" — as good a summation of Reed's boots-on-the-ground, head-in-the-ether art as any.