Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hiding Behind The Shades

Fuelled in part by the explosion of popular communication mediums, most specifically radio, television, cinema, and associated channels of cultural dissemination, every decade since the second World War has produced its share of ‘era-specific’ popular culture icons, and the 1980s yielded more than its share. People, personalities, products, fads, movies, televisions shows, fashions, technology, ‘crazes’, songs, music styles - basically things of a cultural, lifestyle, or artistic bent, which, regardless of their origin, or cultural/lifestyle relevance beyond that particular ten year span in history, have remained intrinsically linked to that time, forever associated with that era via collective cultural memory. Who knows how future generations will view the key players of the 2000’s - at this point an educated guess could be hazarded - but in terms of leaving their mark, those people/things that are quintessentially 80s are, with the passage to time, more clearly identifiable.

The Rubik’s Cube, Pac-Man, Trivial Pursuit, leg warmers, the explosion of MTV (and the music video), Live Aid, Flashdance, the ‘Cosby Show’, ‘New Romantics’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album, the headband, my first pimple, those pesky little Gremlins, the Sony ‘Walkman’, big brash boofy hair, the goofball antics of those recruits at ‘Police Academy’, slogan t-shirts (remember “Choose Life” or “Relax”), Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” statement from ‘Wall street’ (some still haven’t learnt the ironic lesson from that), the development of the home gaming console and home video recorder, ‘ALF’, the urban scourge known as Yuppies, ‘Ghostbusters’, parachute pants, the arrival of a ‘Material Girl’ called Madonna, ‘Smash Hits’ magazine, ‘Miami Vice’, Ferris Bueller sparking an entire ‘Save Ferris’ movement, the emergence of rap, the wax-on wax off ‘Karate Kid’, the development of the compact disc, some time travelling kid called Marty McFly - and I best stop there, lest I list another thousand ‘80s’ inspired items.

Popular music also produced its share of 80s era identities. The 50s had Elvis, Cliff and rock & roll, the 60s had The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Motown, the 70s had KISS, ABBA, punk and disco, and the 80s served up its own unique suite of superstars/styles. Certain artists exploded into the pop culture consciousness, artists who may have experienced a substantive career span before/beyond the 1980s, yet when their name is mentioned, they are immediately identified with that decade - Culture Club, Duran Duran, A Flock Of Seagulls, Prince, Adam & The Ants, Cyndi Lauper, Wham!, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Human League, Pointer Sisters, Eurogliders, Eurythmics, Men At Work, Spandau Ballet, to name a few. Not to elevate him to the status of pop icon, but Canadian born singer Corey Hart did elevate himself to the status of quintessential 80s pop idol, with a string of North American (and Australian) top forty hits during the mid 80s (and beyond).

Born in Montreal, Canada in 1962, Corey Hart spent a large part of his early childhood moving about the world with his parents, and spent extended periods in Spain, Canada, the Bahamas, and Mexico (resulting in multi-linguistic talents, and a penchant for burritos). By his early teen years, Hart was living in Florida, and at age 13 his older sister introduced the budding singer/musician to the legendary Tom Jones. Jones in turn introduced Hart to fellow Canadian Paul Anka, and for a period Anka took the young singer under his wing (Anka later played a key mentoring role in the career of Michael Buble). Hart soon found himself in Las Vegas. Since he was too young to gamble, he recorded a couple of demo tracks under Anka’s guidance, including a cover of Anka’s hit ‘Ooh Baby’. Over the next few years, Corey Hart made the decision to focus all his energies on a career in music. After attempting to win the ‘World Popular Song Festival’ in Budokan, Japan, he returned to New York during 1981. Still only 19, Hart recorded some demo material with another legend of the music biz, Billy Joel. He returned to Canada, with newly recorded demo tape in pocket, and managed to snag a contract with Aquarius Records (attached to EMI), who saw in Hart a talented singer and songwriter, but more importantly, a marketable commodity as a post-teen pop idol.

In 1983, Aquarius sent Hart over to England to write and record some tracks for an album. Under the guidance of producers Phil Chapman and Jon Astley, Hart had access to some of the best studio musicians in the business during the three month long recording process at Revolution Recording Studios. Maybe word had been passed on by Billy Joel about this kid’s potential, but the likes of bassist Gary Tibbs (Roxy Music/Adam & The Ants), drummer Paul Burgess (10CC), and guitarist Michael Hehir (Sad CafĂ©), played on the sessions. One Eric Clapton also dropped by to play the Dobro (Resonator guitar) on the album track ‘Jenny Fey’, and it was reported that Pete Townshend also had an interest in proceedings. By August of ‘83, the album was thought to be in the can, and Hart flew back to Canada to begin preparations for its release. But Hart had just penned a new song that he felt was a sure fire hit, and so just as the album was at the final mixing stage, he convinced the label to add the track ‘Sunglasses At Night’ - the song would soon prove to be Hart’s breakthrough hit.

In November ‘83, Corey Hart’s debut album ‘First Offense’ was released. Interest was restrained to begin with, but when the promo video for the lead out single, ‘Sunglasses At Night’, started getting heavy rotation on MTV, the name Corey Hart exploded onto the pop music scene. Driven by a catchy, moody synthesizer beat, and Hart’s sultry vocals, ‘Sunglasses At Night’ burst into a forceful chorus, laced with crunching guitars and Hart’s passionate vocal strains - it was 80s era pop/rock at its best, spiked with a distinct new wave synth-pop flavour. The track was backed by a memorable promo video, which featured Hart wearing, you guessed it, Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses (it was the 80s), and being chased by authorities - a kind of futuristic rebel on the run scenario. The video actually ended up winning a Juno Award for ‘Video of the Year’. Despite displaying questionable common sense in his choice of night time eye-wear, Corey Hart soon found himself with a U.S. top ten hit (#7), and ‘Sunglasses At Night’ also made an impact in both Canada (#24) and Australia (#16) during 1984. I can recall Hart appearing on ABC’s Countdown and inducing a level of fervent screaming from the studio audience not witnessed since Bay City Roller days (aside from the screams of terror sparked by Iggy Pop’s microphone wielding antics). Almost overnight, Corey Hart was the latest pop idol - as the saying goes, teenage girls wanted to be with him, teenage boys wanted to be like him. Hart had no touring experience, but he needed to hit the road in support of the ‘First Offense’ album, and soon found himself wowing audiences as the opening act for Culture Club’s Canadian tour. Tours in support of April Wine, Thomas Dolby, Hall & Oates, and Rick Springfield followed over the course of the next year. Just as ‘Sunglasses At Night’ was riding high on the Australian charts, Hart’s second single, ‘It Ain’t Enough’, was released for the North American market. The song was a slower tempo, ‘lighter waving’ stadium ballad, and I have to admit I was never a big fan of it, but plenty of people were, and ‘It Ain’t Enough’ delivered Corey Hart his second U.S. top twenty hit late in ‘84 (#17/OZ#37/Ca#74).

Sales for the ‘First Offense’ album continued to mount up in North America. The album peaked at #31 in the U.S. (gold certification), #76 in Australia, and notched up triple platinum sales in Hart’s native Canada, where it spawned two more top forty hits, ‘She Got The Radio’ (#40), and ‘Lamp At Midnite’ (#38). ‘First Offense’ was classic, commercial brand 80s pop/rock - nothing more, nothing less. It may sound dated these days, with fat keyboard riffs, and brooding saxophone solos, but therein lies its charm. On the back of the album’s runaway success, Hart was nominated for a Grammy Award for ‘Best New Artist’, but was beaten out by another 80s pop icon - Cyndi Lauper. It’s worth noting that, despite being mostly recorded there, ‘First Offense’ made absolutely no impact in Britain - in fact Corey Hart never scored a hit single there - further emphasising the rank disparity between U.S. and British popular music markets.

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