Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: 1980s Singles!
The mid-1980s was a bad time for records. Nobody wanted to buy vinyl albums any more, so the cassette was on the rise. Likewise with good old plastic 45s; eventually those gave way to the “cassingle,” or cassette single. But when it came to singles, the record labels didn’t stop there – they put out “extended play” singles with more than just two songs on it; “double packs,” with two singles (or four songs) for the price of one; and the dreaded 12-inch “extended version” singles.
Some labels were quicker to jump into the future than others, so today we’re going to listen to some singles that sort of reflected this rapid change taking place around 1987. First, let’s jump back a year to ’86, and a good old-fashioned two-sided 45 by John Mellencamp.
Mellencamp had evolved from his Johnny Cougar days and by 1986 he had added his real surname to the John Cougar handle, as he had turned into a roots rocker with the hits “Pink Houses” and “Crumblin’ Down,” and he was one of the heroes of the annual Farm Aid concert started the year before. Mellencamp’s 1986 album was Scarecrow, which had as its main songs the urgent “Rain On The Scarecrow,” which focused on the then-precarious financial plight of the American farmer, and the self-explanatory “Face Of The Nation.”
The singles that came off Scarecrow weren’t so heavy: “Lonely Ol’ Night” is an old school rocker, and “Small Town” was cut from the same cloth as “Pink Houses.” But the biggest hit off the album had nothing to do with farmers and everything to do with Heartland America: “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.” subtitled “A Salute To ’60s Rock.” The tune is a mix of vintage Motown, Mitch Ryder’s Detroit sound, some California vocal harmonies and a pinch of Texas garage rock organ. It was Scarecrow‘s biggest hit, going all the way to No. 2 on the pop charts in 1986. The flip side was a cover of the Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk,” which was not found on an album until the pot-luck Rough Harvest (1999).
Running neck and neck alongside Mellencamp in the Great American Heartland Rocker category was Detroit’s own Bob Seger. Seger and his Silver Bullet Band had been hitmakers since 1976, thanks to the two albums he released that year: Live Bullet and Night Moves. Jump ahead ten years, and Seger was about to reach the tail end of his immense success. His album Like A Rock came out in 1986, and it was his first LP in about six years. The title song was a hit and a truck commercial, but today we want to spin “American Storm,” the anti-drug (specifically anti-cocaine) rant that modernized Seger’s sound to the times.
The flip side of the conventional single was a live cover of John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son.” But at the time I was working for a music magazine and Capitol sent over a special “extended play” record that put the A and B sides on one side, and on the flip were studio and live versions of “Hollywood Nights,” the leadoff tune from 1978’s Stranger In Town. Whenever I listened to “Hollywood Nights” I kind of pictured it in the soundtrack of a movie where dudes were snorting lines in a Hollywood mansion; so it was kinda funny to hear it paired with Seger’s anti-coke tune. In fact, this was the era of the hit TV show “Miami Vice,” and one song from Like A Rock – “Miami” – actually appeared in one episode.
So now, let’s jump ahead a couple years to 1988. The year before, I bought my first “cassingle” (it was the Grateful Dead’s “Touch Of Grey”) but there was already something new on the horizon: these little shiny things called compact discs. Do you remember what a compact disc looked like in 1988?
They were only 3 inches in diameter! Originally designed as the digital replacement for the 45 single, the CD-3 (as it was called) featured many of the big artists of the day but by the 1990s the practice proved to be not as economical as just pressing CD singles in the standard disc size we know and love today.
Our blog co-editor George bought this CD-3 as an import: Bruce Springsteen’s “Spare Parts,” from his 1987 Tunnel Of Love album. “Spare Parts” was a stripped-down rocker released as a single in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Sweden. The best version of the “Spare Parts” single, though, is a Japanese CD-3 from 1988 which features a studio and a live version of the song as well as “Pink Cadillac” (which appeared as the B-side of the “Dancing In The Dark” 45) and a live cover of Dylan’s “Chimes Of Freedom.” That song would anchor its own EP in 1988, but without the little pre-song speech that Springsteen delivers on this version.