The lost legends of American soft rock

As 1980s pop stars from Britain leap on to the crowded revivalist bandwagon, Ben Walsh wonders what happened to their US cousins

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:16

Learn to fly again/ learn to live so free", wailed Mr. Mister on the power ballad "Broken Wings". The likes of T'Pau, Kim Wilde, Nick Heyward and Bananarama are pulling in legions of nostalgia fiends as part of Rewind, the wildly popular national Eighties revival tour. But whatever happened to their American counterparts, the Eighties soft-rockers and power balladeers? And what happened to the hair? Has it been gathered up in a crate and deposited in a huge warehouse, Indiana Jones-style, to be studied by future perpetrators of soft-rock?

The recent demise of the superb director/writer John Hughes has generated a lot of Eighties reminiscing, but this odd, garish and evocative decade has never strayed very far from my thoughts. Mainly, because the lyrics that decorated the hits of the day, however corny, however absurd, are enormously memorable. They stick. The acts may have been discarded and forgotten, but the lyrics live on in the minds of virtually every mid-to-late thirty-something. You know - some of you know, some of you blessedly don't - who I'm talking about: Mr. Mister, of course, Huey Lewis and the News ("You don't need money, don't take fame/ Don't need no credit card to ride this train"), REO Speedwagon ("Baby, I can't fight this feeling anymore"), Kenny Loggins ("Highway to the Danger Zone"), ZZ Top ("She's got legs/ She knows how to use them") and Toto ("It's going to take a lot to drag me away from you"). Plus, Foreigner - a US-Brit combo (but I always felt they were more American), Journey, Pat Benatar, Poison, Glenn Frey and Survivor (all together now: "Risin' up, back on the street/ Did my time, took my chances"). These acts were united in their painful earnestness, their ill-judged highlights, their overblown, largely impenetrable lyrics, and their overwrought videos which really, you know, man, "meant something". Think of Lou Gramm, Foreigner's woolly-haired frontman, in "I Want to Know What Love Is", their No 1 hit from 1985's Agent Provocateur. In the soft-focus video, we see a distraught, frankly wild-eyed Gramm drift aimlessly around New York belting out: "I wanna feel what love is/ I know you can show me" to the heavens, to bystanders, to anyone who will listen. No one, though, appears willing to show him.

Mariah Carey is reportedly going to revive this power ballad for her new album later this year, but it's doubtful that even the pop diva can really capture the stalker-like angst of Gramm's performance. It was very much of its time. A time of Ronald Reagan and his deranged Star Wars program, a particularly frosty cold war climate and glossy, dunderheaded dross like Top Gun, Footloose and Red Dawn. Due to creative tensions and the direction the band was taking - Foreigner's Mick Jones favoured synthesizer ballads; Gramm wanted to stay true to their rock roots - the singer duly left the band to form Shadow King in 1991. His new adventure didn't work out and, Jones, in 1996, invited Gramm back for some more "Cold as Ice" frolics. However, in 2003 Gramm left again, attempting a solo career with the Lou Gramm Band. They recently completed an all-Christian rock album.

Foreigner were big, but Mr. Mister were, inexplicably, bigger. The Californian pop-rock band, active from 1980 to 1989 and fronted by Richard Page, provided the world with the "heady" one-two combo of "Broken Wings" and "Kyrie", with the super-pained lyrics: "Kyrie Eleison/ Down the road that I must travel/ Kyrie Eleison/ Through the darkness of the night/ Kyrie Eleison/ Where I'm going will you follow/ Kyrie Eleison/ On a highway in the light". It's no "Kayleigh", Marillion's pained gem - "It is too late to say I'm sorry" etc - but the song was equally as addictive and ubiquitous. In 1986, Mr. Mister had several Grammy nominations, including Best Pop Band, but a mere three years later, in the middle of recording their fourth album, Pull, their label ditched them. The album was never released, but Page tantalisingly claimed in an interview earlier this year that Pull "might be released". The world waits with bated breath...

Mr. Mister may be no more, but plenty of these acts are still out there touring, peddling their soft-rock angst. Sian Llewellyn, the editor of Classic Rock magazine, is keen to point out that "America does have an equivalent Eighties rock revival festival, Rocklahoma, although it has slightly smaller attendance than Rewind," she says. "Also Toto are still touring, Foreigner are still producing new material and REO Speedwagon played a set at the Indigo2 very recently."

The splendidly dramatic Pat Benatar, of "Love is a Battlefield" renown, is also still going strong, with a greatest hits album, Ultimate Collection, released last year, and a tour with Blondie, Call Me Invincible, earlier this year. Her vigorous ballad "Heartbreaker" even appears on Guitar Hero World Tour.

"A lot of these Eighties anthems have been given a second life on games like Guitar Hero," says Llewellyn, pointing to the likes of "Eye of the Tiger" (Survivor) and "Hot for Teacher" (Van Halen), which also feature on Guitar Hero World Tour. For the record, Llewellyn's most memorable soft-rock lyric from the Eighties is "Just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world/ She took the midnight train goin' anywhere", on Journey's 1981 gem "Don't Stop Believin'", which was imaginatively used for the finale of The Sopranos.

But maybe they should all just stop, you know, believing. The feel-good rockumentary of the past year was Anvil: the Story of Anvil, Sacha Gervasi's heart-warming film that charted the woes of being in a failing heavy-metal band. However, the film was so rewarding because the band had just one last moment in the sun. Frankly, these US and UK Eighties bands - many of them one-big-hit wonders - have had their moment in the limelight and many of them were assisted enormously by an outlandish Hollywood movie industry, which fit a music montage into nearly every one of its increasingly preposterous blockbusters: Glenn Frey's "The Heat Is On" in Beverly Hills Cop, Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" in Rocky III and Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" in Top Gun.

The likes of China Crisis, The Christians and Nik Kershaw performed at Henley on Thames over the weekend, and the Rewind festival attracted 20,000 fans, but, let's face it, the only Eighties band you really want to see reform are The Smiths. And they won't and that's a very good thing. Okay, Blur were sensational upon their return, but they were of the Nineties, they always were good and their tour was a one-off. These Eighties acts - both American and English - are less easy to stomach and most belong suspended in time on film soundtracks.

But then, then... - however hard you might try - no one forgets a lyric like "You're as cold as ice, you're willing to sacrifice our love... " Regrettably, these lyrics and acts evoke Eighties adolescence and perhaps, in the end, you've just got to cherish the memories...

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