A Tribute to a Tribute Band

Last Friday night, I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing a show I won’t soon forget when I received free tickets to the Back to the Eighties Show with Jessie’s Girl at the Wellmont Theater in my hometown of Montclair, NJ.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, considering how many disappointing cover bands I’ve heard in my day, and the fact that this ensemble was shamelessly playing my favorite musical decade for comedy.

It turns out I needn’t have feared, because although the evening’s musical offerings were served with a generous helping of humor, the band’s abundance of talent was deadly serious. My friends and I were super-impressed and thoroughly entertained…these guys were masters of their craft.

How were they awesome? Let me count the ways:

  • Musical ability – Nobody can accuse Jessie’s Girl of sub-par chops. On the contrary, the vocalists and instrumentalists all emphatically nailed their parts. One aspect of the band’s special genius was its knack for flawlessly emulating the sound of whoever’s song they were covering, be it Dee Snyder or Madonna. Even the trickier vocal notes were successfully conquered, regardless of which band member tackled them.
  • Costumes – Unlike the many cover bands celebrating the legacy of one specific artist, Jessie’s Girl was faced with the challenge of channeling multiple performers not only musically, but also visually. Somehow they managed to undergo a series of lightning-fast and elaborate costume changes that corresponded to each and every artist whose work they reprised — and it was almost never the same artist twice. The choice of wardrobe, hairstyle, and body language was spot-on every time, and amused the audience to no end. My personal favorite was their rendition of Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me ‘Round” — the lead singer’s impersonation of the late great Pete Burns had my friends and me in stitches.
  • Energy – Throughout the performance, it was clear that the band had a positive dynamic among its members, all of whom continually supported each other with no sign whatsoever of ego or competition; it was also obvious that they were pursuing their passion and having a blast onstage. To operate this way seemed imperative for a performance that tight, with such high and sustained physical demands. The band was giving 200% every moment, and although its members were indisputably youthful, they were hardly twentysomethings.
  • Interaction with the crowd – Jessie’s Girl showed the audience an unusual degree of warmth, inviting their female fans to join them onstage during “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and mixing with the crowd below the stage toward the end of their set. How refreshing to see this kind of freeform intermingling, unhindered by overzealous security guards and the crippling fear of litigation so endemic to New York City venues.
  • Repertoire – While the selections were heavily skewed toward American mainstream ’80s hits, New Year Wavers with more European tastes were not forgotten. We got some Erasure, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Buggles, and Nena, among others.

I was happy to learn that Jessie’s Girl has secured a weekly Saturday night gig at Le Poisson Rouge throughout the summer, allowing lots of other folks in the New York City area to enjoy the spectacle as much as I did. Catch it if you can!

Everyday I [Read] the Book

World-In-My-Eyes-3DThat was, every day for a solid couple of weeks during my subway rides to and from work.

Those of you who saw my previous blog post will recall my rhapsodizing about SiriusXM’s 1st Wave radio station, the modern-day successor to my beloved Long Island-based WLIR-FM from days gone by. Among 1st Wave’s charismatic DJs is not only WLIR’s own Larry the Duck, but also KROQ’s Richard Blade.

Having grown up with a station that was on the opposite coast from L.A.’s KROQ, I had no familiarity with it whatsoever. That said, being a longtime 1st Wave listener has made it abundantly clear to me that British-born Richard Blade is a top-notch DJ — energetic, ever-positive, warm, and deeply knowledgeable and passionate about his genre — and that he was in the thick of the ‘80’s-alternative scene “back in the day.” It turns out that he and I also share the same favorite band, Depeche Mode, as well as a love for rescue dogs. So when I learned that he had just released his Amazon-bestselling self-published autobiography, World in My Eyes, I knew it was a must-read for me. And read it I did!

I enjoyed the book’s rollicking journey through the evolution of both the postpunk genre and Richard Blade’s life. As well as describing the pivotal events — both positive and negative — that shaped him, Richard Blade offers the reader glimpses into the characters and fortunes of several prominent ‘80’s celebrities, including Depeche Mode’s David Gahan, Berlin’s Terri Nunn, INXS’s Michael Hutchence, Wham’s George Michael, and The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, among others. His account also captures what it was like to be at ground zero of the entertainment industry at that time, particularly in finding his way to epic success as a DJ…as well as how fragile and costly that level of success can be.

Aside from its focus on the music and musicians of that era, Richard Blade’s book is also a testament to perseverance in the face of adversity, laser-like focus on and unwavering commitment to clearly defined goals, and personal accountability. When discussing his successes, he is generous about sharing credit. He also shows candor and courage in discussing his shortcomings without making excuses or playing the victim. His descriptions of the various people who were part of his journey are, by and large, respectful and gracious. Even in the cases of his exes and other particular individuals with whom he parted ways and/or strongly disagreed, his tone remains civil for the most part, with the rare exception of the very few whose transgressions he considers especially egregious.

What I found most fascinating, though, was his consistent tendency to link various U.K.-based bands’ superstar status in America to the introduction of their music on KROQ. His claims regarding KROQ’s role in launching their careers into the stratosphere could very well be true (What would I know? I was only a teenager at the time!), but the WLIR documentary Dare to Be Different would have us all believe otherwise. Funnily enough, both WLIR and KROQ contend that they were the ones who first introduced the U.S. to many of the same bands, including U2, The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Duran Duran, George Michael, and Depeche Mode.

Given their respective locations in either entertainment-industry nexus bookending the rest of the U.S., I now suspect that both stations contributed equally, together with nationally-broadcast music video channels MTV and VH1, which have also vied for credit in shaping the fortunes of ‘80’s music icons. I have to imagine that whenever their paths cross at 1st Wave, Richard Blade and Larry the Duck constantly rib each other about whose alma mater radio station was most influential in unleashing the second musical “British Invasion” in America.

Regardless of who ultimately deserves most of the credit for making the U.S. New Wave music scene what it was, I would recommend Richard Blade’s book to anyone who loves the music of that era and is curious about the experience of not only interacting with but also influencing many of the genre’s greatest contributors. World in My Eyes is available on Amazon in hardcover, paperback, or Kindle format.

Life in a Northern Town

WLIR logo

Courtesy of WLIR archives

As November begins here in New York with what feels like an arctic blast relative to the balmy fall weather we were fortunate enough to enjoy beforehand, I’m consoled by the opportunities the cold weather presents for cozy indoor activities like listening to music, reading, watching DVDs and streaming movies, writing, and celebrating the holidays.  The Danish-derived phenomenon of Hygge — roughly translated as “the art of enjoying winter in the safety and warmth of one’s home” — gained popularity in the U.S. in recent years and is serving as my inspiration for getting through another frigid, damp, gray, and seemingly endless winter.

One of the things that helped me through winters growing up in New Jersey was the presence of my all-time favorite radio station, WLIR (92.7 FM), which fed me a steady diet of the latest and greatest underground tunes from across the pond.  Broadcast out of Long Island, the signal became a bit shaky in my neck of the woods, making the station itself seem almost as distant and intriguing as the countries from which its music originated.

Besides a couple of my close friends from school, I didn’t know anyone who had discovered and devoured WLIR quite the way I did…it was almost like being part of a secret club.  In fact, even despite the devoted following it had beyond the neighborhood where I grew up, it couldn’t stay afloat, and eventually changed format in the mid-’90s before going off the airwaves entirely in the early 2000s.

So imagine my surprise when, just this past spring, I learned about a WLIR documentary called Dare to Be Different that would be featured at the Tribeca Film Festival.  It’s a good thing my friends and I bought tickets and arrived at the theater as far in advance as we did, because tickets sold out within the first couple of hours of becoming available, and on the night of the screening itself, it was oversold, and ticketholders who arrived past a certain point were — much to their understandable dismay — turned away.

That night, I learned two things:

1. The size of WLIR’s following during the time it aired, and the interest people took in the station three decades past its prime, far exceeded my wildest expectations.

2. Not only did WLIR open up a whole new musical world for me, it helped open up the entire United States to the second musical “British invasion.”  It was allegedly the first U.S. radio station to play songs by artists such as U2, The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Duran Duran, and George Michael.  The film also attributed much of the stateside success of bands such as Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Yaz, and Blancmange (among many others) to the pioneering spirit of WLIR’s DJs.

Although difficult to verify the accuracy of the above claims, it sure was fun seeing so many of my favorite bands in their glorious getup and hearing excerpts of their music so lovingly aggregated into one place, blasting over movie-theater speakers to an appreciative crowd.

Although WLIR is a phenomenon of the past, its legacy continues via the SiriusXM satellite radio station 1st Wave, whose playlist almost exactly mirrors WLIR’s and one of whose DJs, Larry the Duck, was with WLIR during its heyday.  I love listening to it almost every day, including its Darkwave show on Sunday nights featuring classic goth and industrial selections.  Having that show to look forward to almost makes up for the weekend coming to a close…