Saturday, August 27, 2011

Friday 80s Flashback for August 26, 2011

[Cruising with Donnie Iris] -- Due to an incident or two on the PA Turnpike, I was forced to use one of my alternate routes for my evening commute the other night. On one hand, even this was an unfortunate choice. Traffic was slow going, but at least it wasn't the standstill that would have greeted me at the Mid-County exchange. On the other hand, this was the most wonderful drive of the week. Although the pace was slower than I might prefer, it made for a nice pairing with the cooler evening air that graced us that night. I drove with my windows down and my stereo volume up. Way up. My iPod happened upon a tune by one of my fave 80s tunesmiths, and I immediately dialed in a full block of his work. The chunky guitar work, measured use of synths, driving percussion, and clever lyrics entertained me the entire ride home.

"I have to dedicate a full Flashback to this guy!" I said to myself. And, yes, before you ask, I did say that out loud.

Now, this artist is no stranger to the Friday 80s Flashback. He led off the Hi-Tech Living and Loving Flashback earlier this year. He might, however, be a stranger to many 80s-philes outside of the Three Rivers Area of Pittsburgh, PA. Today's flashback artist was born in Elmwood City, PA, in 1943 and he grew up to become a Pittsburgh rock icon as well as a nerd rock success story. As I mentioned in the January 28, 2011 flashback, he had three things going for him: "the nerd appeal of a Buddy Holly or Elvis Costello, a great sense of humor, and one of the most melodic screams in rock & roll." By now, if you've picked up the hints I've been dropping, you know I'm talking about the one and only Donnie Iris. Oh, what's that? You though he was merely a one-hit wonder? Not so. He has multiple hits (two of them coming from one-hit wonder bands that he was part of in the 70s). Wondering what I've chosen from Donnie Iris' career for this week's flashback? Read and hear more after the break.

Flashback #1"I can touch you, but I don't know how to love you.."

Donnie Iris and Mark Avsec met when Donnie joined Wild Cherry in 1978. It was toward the end of that band's tenure, and Donnie and Mark gelled well enough to discuss a recording project of their own. Focusing on Donnie's voice and songwriting, and Mark's song and production ideas, they started laying down some tracks while building the pieces of their new band. Once the members were in place, and they had a few songs that would form the backbone of their debut album, they were stuck on one little detail: What do we name the band? Although they were in agreement that the record was Donnie's solo album, they wanted to establish an identity for the band -- Donnie Iris and the ... what? Donnie suggested "The Turnpike Cruisers" based on a 1958 car from Mercury, and because of all the time bandmembers spent traveling on the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes. After shortening the moniker to "the Cruisers," "Donnie Iris and the Cruisers" was born and it was time to shop their demos.

As the band tried to get a record deal, something not all-too-uncommon happened: Every record label passed on their debut single. Fortunately, in 1980 diligent bands could used the power of radio to break new music. Three major metropolitan stations -- WDVE in Pittsburgh, WMMS in Cleveland, and WBCN in Boston -- added the record to their regular rotation. It connected with the listening public who kept the station's phones ringing with their requests. Sales of the single were good and it gained traction on the record charts. The band was eventually picked up by a major label, and the band saw their debut single, "Ah! Leah!" peak at #29 on the Billboard Singles Chart. Donnie Iris recorded a wonderfully simple and campy video, complete with terrible 80s lip-synching. Now, please note three of this song's best features: (1) I already mentioned Donnie's melodic screaming. In this tune, he combines it with another favorite songcrafting element -- nonsense lyrics. Check it out at the 1:37 mark. (2) Stacked vocals. Mark and Donnie's experiments in this effect really pay off dividends. (3) The sing-song screaming of the last lyrics, starting around the 2:49 mark. Oh, and tell me he doesn't look just like Bill Nye the Science Guy here. Nerds rule!

Flashback #2"Did you ever come up lame When you played the game of love?"

By 1985, Donnie Iris and the Cruisers had released four stellar albums with a major label. Unfortunately, they had not generated much buzz outside of their home base in Western PA. Moving to a smaller label, they released their final album of the 80s, the critically acclaimed No Muss, No Fuss (1985). After dealing with the indifference at their previous label, they were motivated to continue fighting for that mega-stardom Donnie and his colleagues so richly deserved. The album comes out swinging, but didn't knock anyone out but critics, and they can only buy so many records on their own. Despite excellent reviews, the album barely dented the album chart (#115 on the Billboard 200), and the lone single hit #91 and #28 on the Billboard Hot 100  and the Mainstream Rock charts respectively. Donnie's 1985 single, "Injured in the Game of Love," riffs on relationship troubles through the lens of sports metaphors. It is our second flashback of the day, and it has what must be the corniest music video to ever take place in a gym.

Flashback #3"You can't depend on your teacher | You can't depend on your preacher."

Donnie Iris' biggest chart success came with his sophomore album, 1981's King Cool, so named because a reviewer dubbed Donnie "the new king of cool" after a blistering performance at The El Mocambo in Toronto. The first single, "Love Is Like A Rock," climbed to #9 on Billboard, wowed fans in concert, and stands as our third flashback of the day. Although the complete lyrics of this tune easily fit on a single index card -- or, perhaps, a Post-It note, the aural and emotional impact recall the punch of the J.Geils Band and "Love Stinks" (which was released a year earlier). "Love Is Like A Rock," however, almost feels like it's winking with you even while seemingly trashing love and other institutions that you "can't depend on." I'll bet you'll be singing along before the song is over.

Bonus Flashback"Whenever I'm around you | I'm happy that I've found you."

I'm currently working 9-11 hour days at my day job, and that caused me to miss posting a flashback last week. I feel bad about skipping a week. So, yeah, there's a bonus track this week. And for the record (pun intended), even when I don't have time to write about 80s music, you should know I'm thinking about it -- or listening to it as motivation on the job.
So, back to the bonus track. Although "Love Is Like A Rock" got the chart success, one of my favorite tunes from King Cool (1981) is the bouncy and exuberant "That's The Way Love Ought To Be." Although it was never released as a single, it is considered a classic Donnie Iris tune and it received alot of love from DJs. Capping off a retrospective of Donnie Iris, here is live footage of him and the Cruisers doing their thing live at Cuyahoga Falls, OH, in 1981.

That's all we have in the Flashback hopper this week. Dedicated 80s-philes can find more flashbacks in the archives. As always, your comments are welcome on today's, or any other, flashback post. And if you like what I'm doing here, please share the link with your friends. If, however, you don't like the flashback, feel free to share it with your enemies.

I'll see you in seven!

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