In pop music it was a good year.
In pop music, it was a bad year.
Actually, whether it was good or bad depended on which side of 30 you were on, just like it did in the '60s.
In a year in which nothing particularly exciting, much less riveting, happened, one (somewhat patronizing) note was sounded time and again: Gee, some of those old folks can still manage some twinkletoe rock. The "old folks" included:
The Grateful Dead, whose leader Jerry Garcia has more than a touch of gray in his hair and who came up with their first-ever platinum album with "In the Dark," their first studio effort of the decade.
George Harrison, whose first album in five years, "Cloud Nine," was popcraft-rooted in the '60s "when we was fab" (the title of one of his songs).
Smokey Robinson, whose "One Heartbeat" showed that the pressures of being a Motown executive have not diluted the smooth one's silky delivery or sweet lyric inspirations.
Robbie Robertson, whose first album in 10 years was a vivid reminder that he and the Band were North America's Beatles.
Warren Zevon, whose "Sentimental Hygiene" marked the return of another important songwriter.
And 61-year-old Chuck Berry, who had his best year in ages, what with an intriguing autobiography and a celebratory film titled "Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!"
Call it the graying of rock 'n' roll. Truth is, the music is entering its middle ages, as are many of its first generation fans and principal practitioners -- realities that endanger the tyrannical hold youth has had over rock since the late '50s. Though the old-line record industry had to be convinced of rock 'n' roll's worth (the almighty dollar did its job), the current powers that be, many of whom were part of that first rock wave, have come to realize that several generations have grown up with the music and it's not good business to neglect them.
Hence "oldies" radio, which once meant the '50s and early '60s, and now means the late '70s and early '80s.
Hence New Age radio, realized locally by WBMW-FM, the perfect marriage of call letters and attitude.
Hence the industry's graceless push on repackaging oldies on Compact Disc (more on this and DAT later).
The downside is that new music, which is the lifeblood of any rock future and which has always had a difficult enough time, is even more threatened. Radio, which prefers the tried, true and familiar as much as television, plays new music so infrequently its motto ought to be "Yesterday's Hits Tomorrow!"
There's also a trickle down effect: Clubs simply can't support new bands, who may never reach audiences if they can't get some exposure over the airwaves and outside the arenas of rock. It's doubtful that U2 could have become The Biggest Band in the World without the initial support network that included college radio and commercial stations like WHFS-FM, or that R.E.M. could have achieved its commercial breakthrough this year without clubs like the 9:30. It's not just the new generation getting the shaft, either. After all, how many times can you repackage Motown, the Doors, the Eagles and the Beatles? Actually, if you're Capitol, you know the Beatles part of the answer ...
The Ages of Rock Even some of the younger generation of rockers concentrated on growing up publicly: Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love," the antithesis of the raucous rock that made him a megastar, offered a sober and sensitive overview of love's labors; John Cougar Mellencamp's albums become better as they become more socio-political, as in his Heartland rumination, "Lonesome Jubilee"; even George Michael seemed to be putting some distance between his poster-popster past and the newfound maturity and concern evidenced on "Faith."
On the other hand, some youngsters figured out a way to be better seen and heard. Case in point: the Mall Tour that turned 16-year-old Tiffany into one of the hottest new acts of the year. With snappy videos and live appearances in the grand concourses of shopping malls around the country, Tiffany managed to conjure up two Top 5 hits. Copy-kitten Debbie Gibson managed two Top 10 hits; she might have done even better if she'd combined her performance with shopping.
Another youngster, L.L. Cool J, crossed over with his appropriately titled "Bigger and Deffer" album, which included one of rap's first sappy ballads. Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam also hit big, though the most intriguing hip-hop offerings were coming from Public Enemy ("The Black Panthers of Rap") and Schooly D (the Al Capone of the genre). Other newcomers included Dana Dane, Eric B and Rakim and Kool Moe Dee, but no one got more publicity than the loudmouthed Beastie Boys, whose "Licensed to Ill" joined Run-DMC's "Raising Hell" at the triple-platinum level. On the positive side, their Together Forever tour brought out young, mixed-race audiences the likes of which hadn't been seen since the classic Motown revues.
Rock's short history seemed shorter than ever as this year's inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- who had to have first recorded more than 25 years ago -- included the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Drifters and the Supremes. It was the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Love, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," Rolling Stone magazine, the Monterey Pop Festival and the death of Otis Redding.
It was also the 10th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. You may have read something about it somewhere.
After a five-year break from the recording studio, Michael Jackson was back and though he insisted he was "Bad," he was just pretty good on an essentially vapid album and bizarre in two videos. Jackson also set off on his first ever solo tour, opening to hysterical crowds in Japan. Those Pepsi commercials finally started running. And though Michael's Pets, a stuffed animal toy line inspired by his Encino entourage, seemed headed for endangered species status, Jackson probably wasn't too worried. Forbes estimated his income over the last two years (without recording or touring) at $43 million, putting him just behind Madonna ($47 million) and Bruce Springsteen ($56 million).
Sure, "Bad" opened at No. 1, a feat accomplished only a half dozen times in the modern era, but Whitney Houston's "Whitney" did the same thing a few months before, though it was just a safe, slick rehash of her megaplatinum debut.
There were other disappointments from major artists with too-long breaks between albums, including Fleetwood Mac ("Tango in the Night"), Mick Jagger ("Primitive Cool"), The Cars ("Door to Door"), Def Leppard ("Hysteria") and the Bee Gees ("E.S.P."). Even Prince's adventurous "Sign o' the Times" stiffed, though it picked up a bit at year's end with the release of the very hot concert film of the same name.
Money, Honey The year's biggest business story was CBS Inc.'s sale of the CBS Records Group to Japan's Sony Corp. for $2 billion, leaving only WEA, A&M and Motown as American-owned labels. Everyone concerned seemed to think it was a great deal, but some cynics are wondering what impact it will have on CBS's industry-leading opposition to DAT imports without a copy-code blocking device. Digital Audio Tape is the mini-cassette with CD sound plus the ability to copy with CD quality. The record industry sees it as a deadly tool for its number one bugaboo -- illegal home taping -- and is working hard on Capitol Hill to keep DAT hardware out of the country unless it has a copy-code device developed, ironically, by CBS. Will Sony change that tune? So far, they say no, but it's hard to believe that the prospects of wedding DAT and one of the world's biggest catalogues of recordings didn't make the deal seem sweeter.
Meanwhile, the compact disc is still being jammed down the American public's throat. Little wonder: According to Rolling Stone, a labels' profit on a vinyl album is $2, while on a CD, it's $5. And though the spate of new American CD plants (cutting down significantly on costs) has now led to a situation where supply exceeds demand, there's been no major accommodation in the marketplace.
CDs are still prohibitively expensive for many people, all the new midlines notwithstanding (these usually consist of slower moving titles). That may explain why the hardware market has suddenly gone very soft, even though one gets more bang for the buck here than one does with the software.
Enormous attention was paid to the chronological release of the Beatles catalogue on CD this year, culminating with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" coming out 20 years to the day after its original version (providing writers around the world with the most obvious lead sentence they'll ever stumble onto). The trend seems to be toward reissuing as much old material as possible on CD; after all, it's already paid for.
But many companies have been botching that job, offering shoddy production, dubious mixes and digital remastering, and cheap packaging. In truth, much older material gains nothing from the CD transfer, and the limitations of many "classic" recordings are awkwardly revealed (the Band's albums are notable exceptions).
So far, consumers have been surprisingly meek about the quality and cost problems.
On the Road Again Paul Simon capped off his most successful year with an engaging "Graceland" tour, and one of the intriguing sounds of the year was the overwhelmingly white audiences at his and Peter Gabriel's concerts joining in on antiapartheid songs. Other major concerts passing through Washington included Madonna (though she only filled 30,000 out of 55,000 seats at RFK Stadium), U2 (Bono broke his arm onstage, also at RFK), Genesis (oddly enough at RFK, though Phil Collins seemed much happier behind the drum kit for Eric Clapton at the Capital Centre), Pink Floyd and Roger Waters (the name band drew four full houses at the Cap Centre, the soul of the old Pink Floyd drew only half a house) and songbird Anita Baker, who did a half dozen concerts at Constitution Hall and the Post Pavilion and could have easily done a half dozen more.
It's next year (probably late spring) for Michael Jackson and, maybe, just maybe, for Prince. At any event, expect ticket prices to keep going up, partly because of insurance rates that have tripled in the last year. Look for more tour sponsorship in 1988 -- bands can't afford to leave home without it. And look for increased merchandising, which is apparently where the real money is. According to Rolling Stone, a group like Bon Jovi could expect to sell $17 worth of T-shirts and souvenirs to every -- repeat, every -- ticket holder in 1987. Since they were active, often going back to the same cities, they came up with three different T-shirt designs.
Who's Next? Bon Jovi was the most audio-visible of the hard-rock/heavy-metal axis that reared it's blow-dried head again, as it is wont to do every few years. Suddenly dominating the charts were groups like Whitesnake (whose lead singer David Coverdale may be old enough to be John Bongiovi's dad but still married Tawny Kitaen), Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Dokken, Poison, Mo tley Cru e and so on.
Meanwhile groups like the BoDeans and Rainmakers fought for a handhold on the pop ladder. They could take heart from the Los Lobos story, in which a vibrant roots band waits years for its shot at the platinum ring, puts out two fine albums and finally breaks big recreating the sound of one of their major inspirations (in "La Bamba," the story of Richie Valens). Some of the same success came to Robert Cray, the genuinely young (34) bluesman who has revitalized the genre with soul edges and some much-needed lyric updates. Besides these four bands, here are some names to keep an ear out for in 1988 (and unlike radio, you don't have to pay attention to categories): Cry Before Dawn, K.T. Oslin, View From a Hill, Harry Conick Jr., Terence Trent D'Arby, David Lynn Jones, Stacy Rowles, Lyle Lovett, Levert, Swing Out Sister, 10,000 Maniacs, Maria McKee, Kathy Mattea, Bourgeois Tagg, Georgia Satellites, INXS, Cutting Crew, the O'Kanes, Courtney Pine, Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard, Jonathan Butler, Regina Belle, Kane Gang, Crowded House, World Party, Danny Wilson, Nanci Griffith, Wallace Roney, Marcus Roberts, Michelle Shocked and Paul Kelly.
Home Cookin' Mary Chapin Carpenter put out a fine debut album, "Hometown Girl," on a major label -- hope you were sitting down for that one. Shirley Horn's "Live at Vine Street" has already been hailed as one of the best jazz albums of the year. Also putting out excellent albums: Sweet Honey in the Rock and its founder, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer, Pete Kennedy, Hyaa! and Danny Gatton. Promising bands included the aforementioned Hyaa!, Big Bang Theory, Beyond Words, Betty (who seem to be attracting national attention) and Radiant.
The clubs that mattered were all familiar -- the 9:30, d.c. space, the Birchmere, Blues Alley, One Step Down, the Bayou and Bethesda's roots repository, Twist and Shout. And thank you to WHFS, WPFW, WDCU and WAMU for offering music without commercial consideration being the only consideration. Elsewhere, it was Meet the New Formula, Same as the Old Formula (BMW's New Age being an upscale version of GMS, or more appropriately UMM -- Upwardly Mobile Music).
Go-go problems have been in the street and in City Hall, where politicians look for easy answers to hard problems. Trouble Funk and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers took the go-go message to Europe and the July "Tribute to Go-Go" at the Capital Centre drew a full house and inspired a hot concert video, just released on Friday.
Among the concert highlights: the Welcome Home Concert for Vietnam veterans at the Capital Centre on July 4, which overcame many organizational problems and turned into a surprisingly moving HBO special; the weekend of Sisterfire, the celebration of women's culture, in a new location and better than ever; June's Wolf Trap salute to Dizzy Gillespie's 50 years in jazz, a steaming one-night all-star celebration of the bebop pioneer that should show up on television sometime this year; and the inaugural Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, an international event won by the gifted Marcus Roberts (who's playing in town tonight with Wynton Marsalis' Quintet).
It was the 10th anniversary of d.c. space, Celtic Thunder and Root Boy Slim. Native son Duke Ellington was celebrated in a month-long festival, as well as in a controversial new biography by James Lincoln Collier and, best of all, in newly uncovered tapes that were released on five CDs by LMR.
Odds and Ends Biggest Disappointment After an Interminable Wait: "The Trio," in which Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt forgot the simplicity of their living-room harmony.
Best book title: Eric Burdon's "I Used to Be an Animal But I'm All Right Now."
Most visceral read: Lester Bangs' posthumous "Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung," lovingly compiled and edited by Greil Marcus.
Best cross-merchandising: Judy Collins' autobiography "Open Your Heart," also the title and first single from her concurrent album, providing the first-ever theme song for a book.
Best Christmas Bauble with a Bright Shiny Beat: "A Very Special Christmas," in which 15 superstars let loose to benefit the Special Olympics.
Baah Humbug Prediction for 1988: Some superstar will do a charity concert somewhere overseas, preferably in the Soviet Union or China, and not only will USA Today not be there, it won't be filmed for HBO or recorded for a live double album. Never happen.
Fusses and Feuds The Rolling Stones, as if anyone cared.
Bob Dylan in Israel, as if Bob cared.
George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" (well, at least he cared).
Lawsuits filed by Roger Waters against former bandmates who wisely chose to keep using the Pink Floyd name.
The Beastie Boys, who begged for trouble and then wimped out when it found them.
The Beatles suit against Capitol-EMI and Nike over Nike's use of "Revolution" in their ads.
Good choice: a Los Angeles jury's "not guilty" verdict in the pornography case arising out of Jello Biafra's use of H.R. Giger's allegedly offensive poster in the Dead Kennedy's "Frankenchrist" album.
Also of concern: the Immigration and Naturalization Service's tightening up of regulations for work permits for visiting musicians and cultural workers, seen in some quarters as a subtle move to exclude avant-garde and politically oriented acts. And the royalties boondoggle that may keep many important recordings and compilations from being imported from such countries as England, France, West Germany and Japan, even though they are no longer available from domestic record companies.