Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kat's Korner: The 80s (where Cher proves them all wrong)

Kat: One of the most amazing things to me about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's refusal to induct Cher is that few have lived rock and roll more than Cher and few have had such a strong desire to rock.

Sonny  Cher were a rock and roll act, kicked out of various European hotels for being just that. And then when movies (Good Times and Chastity) took up Sonny's attention and their recording career suffered, it was time to make a decision. Cher wanted them to move into harder rock. Sonny thought the road to success was moving towards musical comedy.

In terms of allowing them to keep their house and paying off their creditors, Sonny was correct. As a musical comedy duo, Sonny &  Cher found even more success becoming a TV staple. And again a radio staple with hits for the duo and solo hits for Cher.

But Cher wanted to rock. As much as she wanted to act, Cher wanted to rock.

One of the main reasons the 80s are my favorite period of Cher's career is that she proved she could do both.

Before that, if they wanted to cast her in films at all, they wanted to put her in things like The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Which was the same as saying, "No, we don't want you to act."

"No, we don't want you to rock," she was also told repeatedly.

The mid-seventies at Warner Bros. was always a hard rocking album away. But the suits always had something for her to do first. Then she signed to Casablanca who was at least more honest about it, telling her that they needed to get her a hit first and then, after she was back on the charts, they could move her into the rock she wanted to do.

So she recorded "Take Me Home." And it was a huge hit. And all Casablanca wanted was more of the same.

In the 80s, Cher took the risks and they paid off. She ended up on Broadway and no one laughed. She not only sold tickets, she won critical praise. And ended up with a film career which would result in the Academy Award for Best Actress for 1987's Moonstruck.

An amazing feat for a woman so frequently written off. Such an amazing feat that what she was doing musically is often brushed aside. The decade started musically with a brave move that was greeted with ridicule.

Black Rose was a rock group Cher fronted. They made one album. Her name got them booked (on Merv Griffin's show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) but she didn't want the album promoted as "Cher's new release." She wanted the album to make it on the music. And she was trashed for that.

Now you could understand if someone didn't care for the music trashing the music. That wouldn't be surprising. But to trash her for what were very pure motives? That said more about the writers than it did about Cher. She was everybody's pinata.

That was 1980 and she and Black Rose were so ridiculed that it was both the start and the end of the group. The next year found her singing a duet called "Dead Ringer for Love." The top five British hit found Cher teamed with rocker Meat Loaf. In the US, it didn't even chart.

This was followed a year later with I Paralyze for Columbia. It was a mixed bag of styles because Columbia knew just what would sell.

It didn't.

And that was it for Cher's recording career. She was hitting onscreen with Silkwood and Mask. She had other things to focus on. And, besides, so many people -- including legends like Phil Spector -- had spent about ten years telling her they'd take her to rock and yet it had all failed so what was the point?

Cher continued making movies and she went back into the studio in 1987 to record a self-titled release for Geffen Records. For years, she'd been told they'd ease her in, they'd get a hit with disco or whatever and then the label would work on easing her into rock.

There was no easing with this album. Cher did what she'd always wanted to do.

And, guess what, ended up with her biggest hit in over 15 years. A hit album, two hit singles, an amazing rebirth musically that would have been the story of the year had she not picked up the Oscar for Best Actress mere months later.

It was a huge accomplishment for and by Cher. She'd done what everyone said she couldn't or that, if it was possible, she'd have to step into it tenderly and carefully. She'd done it and it was so natural, so very much her skin, that it still remains the way she's seen musically today.

The hits were "I Found Someone" and, more importantly, "We All Sleep Alone." Could anyone else have sung "Sooner or later, we all sleep alone" and had it mean as much with the listeners as Cher? Probably not. Even more amazing than the hits were the rest of the album. "Main Man" was the Cher hit that should have been. An amazing performance to this day. "Perfection" and "Working Girl" were so fun and so driving that listeners picking up the album for the first time years after the fact could assume those were the two hits. It was a solid album that rocked out and which you could listen to from start to finish without fast forwarding over any tracks (these were the days when audio cassettes dominated the sales chart).

The decade had started with Cher a musical loser. US audiences didn't want her as a rock group (Black Rose), they didn't want her singing with a rocker (Meat Loaf) and they didn't want her doing rock, disco and anything else you could squeeze in (I Paralyze). They wanted her live, they always wanted to see her perform, but a recording career? Who cared?

Cher was a huge comeback but, again, overshadowed by the Oscar win. Rock and rollers don't win acting Oscars. Ask Elvis, Prince, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, etc. In fact, before Cher, only
Diana Ross had really come close (nominated for Best Actress for Lady Sings The Blues). It just didn't happen. And when it did with Cher, that became everyone's focus.

Which might have been the best thing for Cher musically. Otherwise, there might have been a huge concern with how to follow up Cher. That kind of hit can lead to a ton of micro-managing on the next recording which snuffs out all the life.

Instead, 1989's Heart Of Stone became the best Cher album of her career up to that point.

Months before the album came out, "After All" debuted. The ballad found Cher and Peter Cetera on the soundtrack of Chances Are and in the top ten. But it did not prepare anyone for what was to come. It was one of four top twenty hits the album would spawn. The title track would make it to number 20, "Just Like Jesse James" would go top ten and then there was the album's biggest charter, "If I Could Turn Back Time."

In what always read like a backhanded compliment -- or maybe just bitching -- Joan Baez wrote/whined in A Voice To Sing With about Tina Turner's mid-eighties success and noted that Tina's "What's Love Got To Do With It" had allowed two Tinas in the public mind -- the long, straight wigged woman singing in Ike & Tina Turner's revue and the woman with the spiky hair. That just didn't happen, Joan insisted, not naturally, and that's why, she explained, she was forever the long haired woman strumming a guitar to the American public.

Tina's a legend and has earned that. Cher has as well. And let's play with Joan's theory for a moment. Cher, in the public's mind, was with Sonny singing "I Got You Babe." Then there was the other career defining moment of "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves." Those are two different images -- the hippie and the extravagantly turned out young woman, each singing a different genre of music. And then, in 1989, Cher had another musical career defining moment with "If I Could Turn Back Time."

Some tended to argue at the time that it was the video. Cher in that outfit. Her ass tattoo prominently visible through those stockings. Strutting around on the ship with all those sailors. It was just the video.

But the problem with that argument is that the song continues. Long after the video has been forgotten or new audiences have emerged who've never seen it, that song is embraced.
It was one of her most confident and self-assured performances.

And why not?

She did what everyone said she couldn't do, return to rock. Rock out. No gimmick, no chasing a current trend, just Cher rocking out. On her terms.

She'd done what everyone said wasn't possible and she'd achieved the biggest success musically of her career.

For my money, Heart Of Stone is the album that best captures the 80s Cher. You get the hits and a great album including her cover of "Love On The Rooftop." If you've ever heard Ronnie Spector's original version, you probably think you've heard the definitive version. I thought that too until I heard Cher's take.


But Cher scored hits in the 80s that aren't on Heart Of Stone so if you're looking for a compilation, there's a great one: If I Could Turn Back Time: Cher's Greatest Hits. This album is easily available still. You don't get the track on my CD, "Don't Come Crying To Me," which is too bad because it's a great recording, but that was only on the first pressings of the album and whether you download or buy a new disc, you won't get it. You will get three hits from the 90s and six hits from before the 80s (including her solo number ones and "I Got You Babe"). And the meat of the album is seven tracks -- six of them hits -- from 1987 to 1990. I hope you still get the great booklet. Regardless, you get the best studio greatest hits package of Cher's career. The conceit/concept is "turn back time." So the sequence starts with her Geffen-era hits and works backwards. And it works. It's a marvel to listen to from start to finish and the strongest studio greatest hits package.

In the eighties, a popular joke began including/alternating Cher. The joke used to be that, in the event of nuclear war, only two things would survive: Cockroaches and Keith Richards. In the 80s, with her renewed success, Cher began replacing Keith in that joke.

And I bring it up for a reason. As I've noted before, you have 70 males inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as performers (I'm not counting groups or duos). You have less than ten women. Keith's not inducted individually but he is inducted as part of the Rolling Stones. I have no argument with that and love the Stones.

But Cher's not 'rock enough' for the men who select each year who will get nominated. She's not inducted as a solo act, she's not inducted as a duo along with Sonny. She's not in there.

Rock and roll? It's conformity or it's rebellion? It's supporting the status quo or taking a hard left?

If Cher had written George W. Bush on the eve of the illegal Iraq War to tell him what a great idea it was, that would be one more reason people would say she didn't belong in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But, as we all know, Cher opposed the illegal war and continues to champion veterans issues. By contrast, last month Keith Richards was publicly bragging about his advice to Tony Blair, to go to illegal war. If that had been Cher, they'd still be publicly flogging her.

Yet, Terry Gross spent 44 minutes plus just interviewing Keith last month and she never, ever asked about the Iraq War. If you listen to the show or read the transcript, it will become very clear that she really doesn't ask about anything after the mid-seventies. Keith's in the Hall of Fame and, apparently, his contributions ended around 1975. Cher's gone and on for decades. In the spotlight, not the shadows, and she's not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Nor is she interviewed by Gross but then, as Ann documents near daily, Queen Bee Terry doesn't interview many women. As Ann, Ava and C.I. documented last month -- a five month study found that only 20.58% of Terry's guests were women.

Cher's not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She damn well should be. So should a whole lot of other women who aren't. And while it's easy -- and accurate -- to lay blame at the feet of a number of sexist men, it's equally true that a number of women have allowed this to take place and encourage it by their own actions.

Ann Powers wants to pit Laura Nyro against Labelle instead of arguing that there's room for both of them. 15 nominees are announced and for Ann the thing to do is to whine that Nyro is nominated and Labelle's not? Instead of whining that 8 individual men were nominated and Labelle was not? The thing for 'feminist' Ann to do is to slam the late Laura Nyro? To pit woman against woman?

Terry Gross wants to pretend that she's a cultural expert -- on high and low culture -- and that she has something to offer. If she were held to the same standards she holds other women to, she wouldn't be on the air. 20% of her guests, over a five month period, were women. Why are there seven times as many men in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as women -- men who aren't even rockers? Because of women like Terry Gross who will go to any length to include men while ignoring women.

This is part three of my series (click here for Cher's 60s recordings and here for her 70s recordings). I think Cher belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and I'm outraged that she's not in it. That's why I'm doing this series, to call attention to that fact. I've also noted that many worthy women are not in the Hall and I hope that point comes through as well. But most of all, I hope we're all beginning to see that a number of people -- people, men and women -- work overtime to hold women back. It's interesting to think of Terry Gross unable to offer women as half of her guests, or even a third, and contrast that with Cher's solo 70s variety series where she had Bette Midler, Tina Turner, Raquel Welch, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman, Nancy Walker and many others. My point being, when Cher's picking and choosing, she's not forgetting women. One more reason I throw my support behind her.