What Makes Duran Duran So Durable?

Formed in Birmingham, England in 1978, Duran Duran exploded into popularity alongside the Video Age. Powered by a fervent fanbase and regular rotation on MTV, the band stormed the charts around the world, beginning with their self-titled debut album. Duran Duran hit stores 40 years ago this week and helped to drive what observers called the Second British Invasion. Here’s how five lads combined pop music and high style to create an audio-visual legacy that’s lasted for four decades and counting.

The story begins at Birmingham club Rum Runner. Nick Rhodes and John Taylor, both still in their teens at the time, worked at the club and assembled a group to serve as the house band. The dominant styles at the time were the New Romantic movement (characterized by an embrace of a pop-oriented, synthy sound and fashion inspired in equal measure  by ’70s Glam Rock and the Romantic period of the early 1800s) and British punk (typified by the anti-authoritarian bent of The Clash and The Sex Pistols). The reigning punk club was called Barbarella’s; in a bit of nod, Nick and John decided to name their band after a character from the film, Dr. Durand Durand, minus the title and the extra Ds.

(Uploaded to YouTube by Duran Duran)

The line-up of the band went through a few configurations in the early days. The most substantial contributor who didn’t stick around was guitarist Andy Wickett; he co-wrote “Girls on Film” and the song that would become “Rio” before leaving to join The Xpertz (his later band, World Service, would open for his old mates in the ’90s). The final “original” line-up would coalesce into John Taylor (bass), Nick Rhodes (keyboards), Roger Taylor (no relation, drums), Andy Taylor (also no relation, guitar) and Simon Le   Bon (vocals). From the beginning, the band was conscious of showmanship and image; stylist Perry Haines and other designers collaborated with the group on their look.

Frequent Duran Duran collaborator Russell Mulcahy directed “Rio” (Uploaded to YouTube by Duran Duran)

Eventually, the group signed with EMI in December of 1980 and hit the studio soon after. Their first album, Duran Duran, arrived in June of 1981. One of the earliest impressions that the band made in the U.S. was via its sexually charged video for “Girls on Film,” which underwent serious editing to be shown on MTV. The band began to generate more attention for both their songs and their looks; they also earned many new fans when they toured in support of Blondie. By the time that Rio dropped in the U.K. in March of 1982, they were on their way to being superstars.

“Hungry Like the Wolf” (Uploaded to YouTube by Duran Duran)

However, Rio stiffed in the U.S., except for some dance remixes that were popular in the clubs. The band convinced their American label, Capitol, to allow them to remix and re-release the entire album. The new Rio dropped in late 1982, with the group repositioned as a dance band. And it exploded. The album went to #6 in the States in 1983, and a fusillade of hit singles saw major success, including “Hungry Like the Wolf” (#3), “Save A Prayer” (#16), and “Rio” (#14). As popular as the songs were, the videos were even bigger; driven by constant rotation on MTV, album sales soared. Buoyed by this success, the band re-released their first album in the States with an added single, “Is There Something I Should Know?,” which went to #4.

“The Reflex” (Uploaded to YouTube by Duran Duran)

Members of the band have compared this period to Beatlemania, and they weren’t wrong. Throngs of people filled the streets at signings. Shows sold out. Public appearances produced screaming mobs of fans. Before 1983 was out, the band had recorded and released their third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger. “Union of the Snake” hit #3 before the year was over, giving the band the distinction of having hit the U.S. Top Twenty five times with songs from three albums in one year. Subsequent single “New Moon on Monday” went to #10, but “The Reflex” was their first song to go all the way to #1 in America. 1984 saw a worldwide tour that was captured on the live Arena album; a new single on the collection, “The Wild Boys,” went to #2. The band would also win two Grammys that year (for long and short-form video) and get featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.

After a rapid ascent and amazing success, there was desire in the ranks to stretch. This resulted in two side projects occurring at what appeared to be the band’s peak. John and Andy leaned into a more rock-oriented direction, forming The Power Station with singer Robert Palmer and Chic drummer Tony Thompson. Simon, Nick, and Roger formed Arcadia, a band with similar sensibilities to the regular group. The Power Station took two singles (“Some Like It Hot” and a cover T-Rex’s of “Get It On (Bang a Gong)” to the Top Ten, while Arcadia landed “Election Day” at #6 and sent “Goodbye Is Forever” into the Top 40.

“A View to A Kill” (Uploaded to YouTube by Duran Duran)

The five members of Duran Duran reconvened to record “A View to A Kill,” the eponymous theme for the fourteenth James Bond film. The song went #1 in the U.S., the only Bond theme to do so. The band played Live-Aid at the Philadelphia location on July 13, 1985, while “View” sat atop the charts in America. The band didn’t know it at the time, but “View” was the last single that the five of them would record together for almost two decades.

In 1986, Roger Taylor left and went into semi-retirement, citing exhaustion. Andy Taylor signed a solo deal and split after playing on a few songs for the next record; he had a solo hit with “Take It Easy” and co-wrote and produced “Lost in You,” “Forever Young,” and “My Heart Can’t Tell You No” on Rod Stewart’s hugely successful Out of Order. Simon, John, and Nick moved on as Duran Duran, recruiting guitarist Warren Cuccurullo of Missing Persons; Sterling Campbell would eventually become the session, then live, drummer. The group took “Notorious” to #6 in 1986 with a slightly more mature, funk-inflected sound (driven in part by producer Nile Rodgers).  However, the band found themselves in a not-uncommon spot in music. Once viewed as teen idols to a degree, they had a hard time shaking that image. They were still recording hit songs (like “I Don’t Want Your Love” and “All She Wants Is”), but it was fairly clear that the peak of the band had likely passed. Campbell would leave for other projects in 1991.

“Ordinary World” (Uploaded to YouTube by Duran Duran)

Then, the improbable happened. In a 1993 landscape filled with alternative rock and rising hip-hop acts, Duran Duran released a second self-titled record (aka The Wedding Album). Lead single “Ordinary World” went to #3, and “Come Undone” hit #7. The band again toured the world, and put together a hit collection of covers called Thank You. Critics loathed Thank You, but several of the covered artists, like members of Led Zeppelin, praised the versions of their songs; Lou Reed went so far as to say that the band’s cover of his “Perfect Day” was the best cover ever done of his work.

Duran Duran carried on for the next few years, but without many highs. John left the band for other projects, reducing the group to Simon, Nick, and Cuccurullo. The band departed Capitol/EMI and released a single unsuccessful album, Pop Trash, for Hollywood Records. Simon pitched John on a reunion of the classic group in 2000; after the Pop Trash tour, Cuccurullo exited to rejoin Missing Persons. Throughout 2001 through 2003, the reunited quintet worked on a new album, but couldn’t find a record deal to their liking. Instead, they hit the road.

“(Reach Up for The) Sunrise” (Uploaded to YouTube by Duran Duran)

The reception surprised the band, as fans emerged to cause instant sell-outs, starting in Tokyo. A veritable Duran Duran lovefest happened across a series of awards shows, as the MTV Music Video Awards, Q Magazine, and the Brit Awards all presented the group with variations of lifetime achievement honors. The band signed with Epic Records, and the first single from 2004’s Astronaut, “(Reach Up for The) Sunrise” was another worldwide hit, going #1 Dance and #13 Adult Top 40 in the States and #5 in the U.K. Near the end of 2006, Andy Taylor departed again.

In the ensuing years, the band has never stopped working. Whether doing covers for charity albums or mounting concerts that were filmed and directed by David Lynch, Duran Duran continues to challenge expectations. On May 18, the band announced that their new album, Future Past, will arrive on October 22. The next day, they dropped a new single, “Invisible,” which promptly shot to #3 on the U.K. iTunes chart and #29 in the U.S. Through 15 albums and 40 years of world tours, the boys from Birmingham managed to survive naysayers that insisted they were all fashion and little substance. With tunes that remain alive in the popular consciousness and a recurring groundswell of excitement whenever they announce their return, there IS something you should know about Duran Duran: wild boys always shine.

Featured Image: Las Vegas- Pop band Duran Duran perform onstage during Day 2 of the 2015 Life is Beautiful Festival on September 26, 2015 in Las Vegas Nevada (Shutterstock)

Pump Up the Volume Still Reverberates 30 Years Later

Generation X readily acknowledges the films of John Hughes as bedrock cultural experiences of their ’80s and ’90s youth. At the same time, a number of other films would represent a darker undercurrent of that generation’s experiences, far away from fictional Shermer, Illinois, including Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986), Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1989), and Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980). Put off by parts of his Times Square experience, Moyle resolved not to direct again, but ten years later, he was back behind the camera for a film he’d written about alienation, depression, the burden of expectation, the exploitation of kids by school officials, and a primordial version of today’s internet culture. That film was Pump Up the Volume, a film both uniquely of its time while being many steps ahead of it.

A young Christian Slater
Christian Slater in 1991. (Bart Sherkow / Shutterstock)

Moyle first drew notice for 1980’s Times Square, a film that he co-wrote the story for and directed. The movie was produced by Robert Stigwood, famous for managing The Bee Gees and Cream, producing for the stage with shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and producing films like Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Aware of the punk and new wave scenes that had already coalesced in New York City, Stigwood saw an occasion to produce another huge double-album soundtrack. Moyle just wanted to tell his story about two young women finding solace in each other and music. Frustrated to the point of quitting over Stigwood’s demand for more musical sequences, Moyle quit the movie before it was done. Stigwood got his musical scenes, but also cut some of the more emphatic lesbian overtones of the relationship between the two main characters. The resulting soundtrack turned out to be a tremendous artifact of its time, featuring acts like The Ramones, Roxy Music, The Cure, XTC, Lou Reed, The Patti Smith Group, Gary Numan, Talking Heads, and Joe Jackson. The film has since developed a cult reputation, but the overall situation and its failure drove Moyle from movies for a decade.

When he returned, it was with a script that he had originally started as a novel. The story concerned a pirate radio personality who was connecting with a teen audience by being real and foul-mouthed while playing music that related to an outsider sensibility. SC Entertainment out of Toronto decided to develop the movie, and they managed to talk Moyle into directing again. Still reluctant, Moyle said he’d walk if he couldn’t get the right lead; that turned out to be Christian Slater, who displayed some of the qualities that Moyle was looking for with his turn in Heathers.

The trailer for Pump Up the Volume (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)

Released in August 1990, Pump Up the Volume is definitely of its time. It exists in a space just prior to the advent of the World Wide Web. While pay services like Prodigy and CompuServe were in use, there were still wide portions of the U.S. that hadn’t even heard of email. Comically large “Zack Morris” mobile phones existed, but weren’t remotely in the kind of widespread use that would follow later in the ’90s. That’s part of what makes the pirate radio station concept so appealing; teens really did listen to the radio in the ’80s, and that, along with both mainstream and underground music magazines, was one of the ways that kids (especially those in outsider social groups) learned both about new music and social issues. Ads in magazines like Maximumrocknroll and other avenues enabled a healthy tape trading culture, wherein teens would mail each other music or videotapes of concerts and club shows to facilitate the spread of bands they liked.

And that’s reflected in the broadest theme of the film: communication. Mark Hunter (Slater), a smart new student whose father works for the school district, is a loner and has trouble connecting, so he creates his shock-jock persona, alternately called “Happy Harry Hard-On” or “Hard Harry” and begins talking about everything that’s bothering him personally and socially behind the anonymity of radio and a voice modulator. For Mark, it’s initially about the release, but then he begins to realize that people are actually listening.

This taps into and opens up a wide range of problems as seen through a variety of other teen characters. One character struggles with the weight of academic expectations that’s been put upon her, and begins buckling under that pressure. Another finds himself expelled for suspicious reasons and protests to get back into the school. When Mark calls a listener, he winds up trying to talk him down from committing suicide, but fails. This activates the parents of the community, but they still miss the point that they aren’t connecting with their own children. What’s worse, people in the school administration have actually conspired to kick out kids that are struggling on standardized tests in order to make the school look better (and to keep receiving funding). These were real issues. They’re still real issues.

You can read Mark’s radio show, the affinity that kids have for it, and the broken communication between generations as a fairly savvy forerunner of internet culture. You can substitute “amateur radio” for “YouTube” or “TikTok” or “Snapchat” and still tell elements of the same story. That’s one of the reasons that film was strikingly different and remains resonant, because as good as John Hughes was at presenting outsiders, this hits in a more cutting way.

On The Sam Roberts Show, Christian Slater said he wants to be remembered for Pump Up the Volume. (Uploaded to YouTube by notsam)

Moyle also managed to be ahead of the curve with his soundtrack, just like he was with Times Square. In the keynote address that he gave at South By Southwest (SXSW) in 2013, Dave Grohl hilariously recalled how absurd it seemed in 1990 that Nirvana and alternative music might break through to the mainstream, going as far as to read the Billboard Top Ten songs of that year. And yet, that’s the kind of music that fills Mark’s show and the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack. Moyle and company understood that outsiders connect to outsider music, and thus the film was populated with songs by The Pixies, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, Concrete Blonde, Cowboy Junkies, and more. Ironically, a number of those bands would begin experiencing broader awareness that year, and some, like Soundgarden, would burst into actual stardom during the following year’s alternative explosion. Concrete Blonde’s contribution was a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows;” in the film, Mark uses Cohen’s version to open his radio shows until the climactic scene when he uses the cover. The album peaked at #50 on the Top 200.

Ultimately, the film was not a huge success in theatres. Like a number of movies of the time, it found a second life on video. Moyle stayed in film this time, and would go on to make another music-centered and much-loved cult classic in 1995, Empire Records. The thing that remains important about Pump Up the Volume is that it tried to be about something, and it succeeded. It shows that teens have a much deeper life of complexity and problems than parents and authority figures give them credit for, and that simple and non-judgmental communication, no matter how loud, might be the best first step to alleviate those issues.

Featured image: The DVD and film soundtrack of Pump Up the Volume (Photo by Troy Brownfield. Film & DVD ©New Line Home Entertainment/Warner Bros.; CD & Soundtrack ©MCA Records/Universal Music Group; writer’s nearly indestructible Guitar Amplifier ©Charvel).

The Mystery of Black Rose

40 years ago this week, an L.A.-based rock band released their one and only album. It didn’t chart, it didn’t have a hit single, and in four decades, it hasn’t sold enough copies worldwide to even earn a Gold certification in America. And yet, while promoting that record, the band appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the beloved late-night music series Midnight Special, and The Merv Griffin Show. The clout that allowed the band to make those appearances came from the fact that their lead singer was one of the most popular entertainers in the history of the world, a single-name icon that has sold over 100 million records in her other endeavors. And that’s part of the mystery of the group called Black Rose.

Les Dudek asked for a guitar for Christmas when he was ten. He fell in love with the music of the time idolizing The Beatles and Hendrix and Cream. Gigging in his teens, he soon found himself playing on the Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers & Sisters record, appearing on the classic track “Ramblin’ Man.” He’s had a long and distinguished career since, playing with Boz Scaggs, The Steve Miller Band, Stevie Nicks, and more. He’s acted and done music for films and half-a-dozen television networks in addition to releasing solo albums. But back in 1979, he started dating Cherilyn Sarkisian. You know her as Cher.

“I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher (Uploaded to YouTube by Rhino)

Cher exploded into mainstream popularity in 1965. As Sonny & Cher with her then-husband, Sonny Bono, the duo had a #1 hit with “I Got You Babe.” Within two years, they had sold 40 million records. Almost simultaneously, she began to release solo records, starting with “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in 1966. Success piled on top of success with a string of major hit songs that included three #1 solo albums and the massively popular The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour on television, which ran three years. Although Cher and Bono divorced in 1975, they did another series, The Sonny & Cher Show, in 1976 and 1977. She followed that with disco hits like “Take Me Home,” demonstrating her musical flexibility.

In 1979, Cher took on a residency to do concerts in Las Vegas for three years. The lucrative gig paid the star $300,000 a week. At the same time, she and Dudek put together a group called Black Rose. Cher was a seriously established pop singer, but the Black Rose work was a turn toward a more rock-oriented sound. Among the other members of the band were Warren Ham, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist whose long career has included stints with Kansas, Toto (insert “not in Kansas anymore” joke), Olivia Newton-John, and Donna Summer. The band would take the name Black Rose, which would also be the name of the album.

Black Rose was produced by James Newton Howard, the celebrated composer that has scored more than 100 movies, including The Sixth Sense, Batman Begins, and Pretty Woman. He also co-wrote one song on the record, lead track “Never Should’ve Started,” with David Paich of Toto, Valerie Carter, and legendary songsmith David Foster. Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin co-wrote “Julie.” Carole Bayer Sager co-wrote “Take It from the Boys,” and Allee Willis, best-known for co-writing “September” for Earth, Wind & Fire, co-wrote “Young and Pretty.” This was a serious effort backed by very serious talent.

However, the band took one curious turn. The album wasn’t promoted as a “Cher” record at all. In fact, aside from hearing her voice on the tracks, the only association you’d find with Cher on the cover of the album is the group photo on the back of the record sleeve. Cher wanted it to be a real group, working on the merits of the team rather than simply making her the face of it. The group built up their live show playing gigs in L.A., all of which were arranged around Cher’s Vegas schedule. Black Rose then did a six-date tour in August of 1980, circling the August 20 album release date with shows booked entirely in the northeast. It was around this time that the band made their series of TV appearances. They played “Never Should’ve Started” and “Julie” on The Tonight Show, and also played those two numbers along with “You Know It” and “Ain’t Got No Money.” They again played “Never” on Merv Griffin.

Unfortunately, the album went nowhere. There could be a lot of factors for this. 1980 was a period where radio was in flux; disco stations were dying or switching formats even as the genre turned out #1 hits, and ballads like Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” and Barbra Steisand’s “Woman in Love” got a huge amount of airtime (those two tunes combined to take the top of the charts for nine weeks that fall and winter). A lot of programmers for rock stations didn’t add the songs, as they weren’t taking “Cher does rock” seriously. The critics were also particularly savage to Cher in reviews of the record; as she told Rolling Stone, “The critics panned us, and they didn’t attack the record. They attacked me. It was like, ‘How dare Cher sing rock & roll?’”

Cher wins the Oscar for Moonstruck (Uploaded to YouTube by Oscars)

Black Rose had planned to do a second album, but it was cancelled. By 1982, Cher and Dudek had broken up. After wrapping up the Vegas residency, she went to Broadway to appear in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Director Robert Altman cast her in the film version, and Mike Nichols, who loved her in the play, cast her for Silkwood alongside Meryl Streep. Cher was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Silkwood; she responded by putting together her own production company and taking the lead in Mask, which earned her a Best Actress nomination. In 1987, she starred in two of the Top Ten films at the box office that year: The Witches of Eastwick and Moonstruck. Cher took home the Academy Award for Best Actress for the Moonstruck role.

“If I Could Turn Back Time” by Cher. (Uploaded to YouTube by CherVEVO)

With a strong and credible acting career established, Cher took a turn back to music, defiantly keeping a rock-oriented sound as she put together new material for Geffen Records. The self-titled 1987 album was produced by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, Michael Bolton, and Desmond Child (the Hall of Fame songwriter behind classic rockers like “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.”) The song “I Found Someone” hit the Top Ten; just two years later, her Heart of Stone album sold three million copies and sent “If I Could Turn Back Time” to #3.

Cher singing in front of an audience
Cher performs during a taping of NBC’s Today in 2013. Debby Wong / Shutterstock

In the years since, Cher has continued to do what Cher does: sing, act, and get awards (like the Billboard Icon Award and the Kennedy Center Honors). She had her biggest hit ever, “Believe,” in 1998/1999. A raucous presence on Twitter, she most recently offered to volunteer at the Post Office to help amid its current troubles. The Black Rose album was eventually reissued in Germany as a Cher album, but had little impact. Her many decades of overwhelming and ongoing success make the Black Rose anomaly even more of a mystery. Maybe it was a case of the idea being ahead of its time. Maybe it’s a comment on the lure of celebrity, and that people are more comfortable with the familiar as opposed to the unknown. And maybe it wasn’t as good as previous and subsequent material. Whatever the case, it’s an interesting side-note in one of the biggest careers in entertainment. When it comes to Black Rose, if she could turn back time . . . Cher probably wouldn’t change a thing.

Featured image: Debby Wong / Shutterstock; Blan-k / Shutterstock; SEPS

How Urban Cowboy Disrupted Country Music

No matter how you look at the decade, the 1970s were a musical battleground. New and rising genres like disco, punk, funk, and hip-hop arrived as significant acts from the previous decade broke up (The Beatles), faded, or died. The Southern Rock and singer-songwriter movements impacted the charts, as did more socially conscious soul and R&B. In the country music arena, a struggle ensued between a shiny, rhinestone-covered version of the sound and artists who wanted to push for gritand authenticity. By 1980, the clash in country hit a flashpoint in an unlikely place, the John Travolta film Urban Cowboy, which was released 40 years ago this week.

Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” was a #1 pop song in 1977 (Uploaded to YouTube by Dolly Parton)

A fine point about the divergences in country through the 1970s was made in, wouldn’t you know it, The Saturday Evening Post. In a 1975 article, “Nashville – Where It Started,” Paul Hemphill said, “Country music isn’t really country anymore; it is a hybrid of nearly every form of popular music in America.” Hemphill meant the genre wasn’t just cowboy songs or honky tonk or rockabilly; it was a thing that combined all sensibilities, including folk and pop. Song of the biggest stars at the time, like John Denver or Olivia Newton-John, either started in other genres or integrated other styles into the country approach.  Denver even won the Country Music Association’s award for Country Music Entertainer of the Year in 1975. Established country artists like Dolly Parton began to regularly score huge hits on the pop charts.

“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” by Waylon Jennings (Uploaded to YouTube by Waylon Jennings)

That same year, Waylon Jennings recorded “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” which suggested that a new approach in both style and content was needed in the form. Jennings and other artists like his wife, Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and others, leaned on a rougher style that became known as Outlaw. Many of those artists chucked the shiny blazers and sparkly suits that had been en vogue for the decade in favor of jeans and leather vests or jackets.

The trailer for Urban Cowboy (Uploaded to YouTube by YouTube Movies / Paramount)

It was against this backdrop that Urban Cowboy came into being. The film drew inspiration from the Esquire article “Urban Cowboy” by Aaron Latham; Latham’s piece centered on a romance at Gilley’s, which was a massive honky tonk club in Pasadena, Texas. Latham and director James Bridges adapted the story into a screenplay with John Travolta and Debra Winger as the leads. It was little wonder that Travolta had an interest in the part; his massive 1977 hit Saturday Night Fever was also based on a magazine piece. Also like Fever, and Travolta’s 1978 hit, Grease, the part would allow him to show his dancing ability against the backdrop of a strong soundtrack (Travolta’s representation had previously suggested he take a cut of the soundtracks for Fever and Grease, a move that paid off to the tune of millions). While the film wasn’t as huge as Fever or Grease, it was a sizeable hit in terms of not just box office, but also fashion and music.

The soundtrack for Urban Cowboy leaned heavily on pop-flavored country and generated five Top 10 country singles (“Love the World Away” by Kenny Rogers; “Look What You’ve Done to Me” by Boz Scaggs; “Stand by Me” by Mickey Gilley; “Lookin’ for Love” by Johnny Lee; “Could I Have This Dance?”  by Anne Murray); the latter three all went to #1, and all five crossed over to the Pop Chart. Those songs, along with other hits like Dolly Parton’s title tune from her own 1980 film, 9 to 5, caused a major surge in the popularity of the lighter side of country.

Sylvia performing “Nobody” (Uploaded to YouTube by Sylvia – Topic / Sony Music Entertainment)

However, country traditionalists weren’t exactly thrilled. A definite schism arose in the genre between the rougher outlaw artists and related subgenres, and the more pop-oriented singers and groups. On a commercial level, the pop style was in ascendance, with artists like Rogers and Parton consistently notching hits on both charts. In the wake of the success of Urban Cowboy, new fans of the genre came in concurrent to a spike in the number of stations moving to a country format (some were new, while a few of these had abandoned disco and the 1970s staple AM easy listening formats). TV helped both sides, with the continued success of Hee Haw in syndication showcasing acts from all segments of the country spectrum. Following the lead of 1981’s launch of MTV, the 1983 debut of The Nashville Network gave the genre its own cable platform. Like Hee Haw, the channel featured a variety of artists; however, it did tend to emphasize pop-oriented and video-ready acts like Sylvia, whose “Nobody” went to #15 on the pop charts in 1982.

Of course, no subgenre holds sway forever. Pop crossovers started dropping in the mid-’80s as both the pervasiveness and increased diversity on MTV allowed superstars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and others to dominate the charts, while also allowing booming genres like metal and hip-hop to enjoy crossover success. Country retrenched in the mid-1980s as neotraditionalists like Clint Black, Dwight Yoakam, The Judds, Reba McEntire, and George Strait took over for the rest of the decade.

The Highwomen perform “Redesigning Women.” (Uploaded to YouTube by The Howard Stern Show)

Today, country is as it’s always been: an amalgam of many genres and subgenres. It experienced a huge boom in the early ’90s when SoundScan dramatically changed how sales were counted, and enormous acts like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain were as big as any stars on the planet. Though country still offers the occasional crossover breakout, like Taylor Swift, it’s steady and thriving. Some likened the recent years of male-heavy “bro country” to the Urban Cowboy years, but acts like Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, the supergroup The Highwomen (of which Carlile and Morris are members), Kacey Musgraves, and Kelsea Ballerini, among others, have carved out a bigger niche for female artists in the last few years. The lesson seems to be that no matter how far you stretch a form, it will at some point always snap back to the essentials. Or, to put it another way, you can put country on the pop charts, but it won’t forget where it came from.

Featured image: ThoseLittleWings / Shutterstock

The Rubik’s Cube Turns (and Turns and Turns) 40

How do you build the perfect puzzle? In the case of one Ernő Rubik, it involved rubber bands, wood, and inspiration. In 1975, he applied for a patent for his “Magic Cube,” but it really broke through when the Ideal Toy Company took it international five years later. Hungary might have known the fiendishly clever device since 1977, but for the rest of the world, this is the day that the Rubik’s Cube turns 40.

Creator of the Rubik's Cube, Erno Rubik, at the Genius Gala in 2014.
The creator of the Rubik’s cube, Erno Rubik
(Babak Mansouri [Public domain])
Rubik’s father, Ernő Sr., was a flight engineer, particularly well-known for his expertise on gliders, and his mother was the poet Magdolna Szántó. Rubik himself studied architecture and sculpture, later teaching at the Academy of Applied Arts and Design in his native Hungary. The cube began as more of a problem solving exercise than a puzzle, with Rubik trying to figure out how to make individual sections of a cube moveable, but he hit upon its game potential when he realized how the scrambling and unscrambling would work. Rubik received his “Magic Cube” patent in 1975. It went on sale under that name in toy shops in Budapest in 1977.

Rubik’s Cube commericals. (Uploaded to YouTube by Rubik’s)

Businessman Tibor Laczi took the Cube to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1979 to try to get the puzzle some attention outside of Hungary. It worked; the Cube caught the eye of Ideal Toys, who acquired the distribution rights and re-named the puzzle the Rubik’s Cube. The toy made its international debut 40 years ago today as it began hitting the Toy Fairs in London, Paris, Nuremberg, and New York. The Cube hit stores in America in May of 1980, and sales took off once TV advertising got behind the toy. 1981 was truly the Year of the Cube; in addition to millions of units being sold in the U.S., no less than three books about solving the Cube were bestsellers. The Cube was also named Toy of the Year in Germany, France, the UK, and the U.S. in 1980, and in Italy, Finland, and Sweden in 1981. One of the side effects of the craze was “speedcubing,” which was simply the practice of solving a Cube really, really fast. It sparked competitions everywhere from college campuses to pop culture conventions.

An alternative version of the popular puzzle toy, the Rubik's cube: the Rubik's snake, seen here closed.
A closed Rubik’s Snake (Shutterstock)

Rubik went on to create other popular mechanical puzzles, including the Rubik’s Magic and the Rubik’s Snake. With the advent of social media and video sharing platforms, the Cube and similar toys got a renewed boost in popularity; that newfound visibility also prompted the return of speedcubing The inventor himself has spent the last several years touring an exhibition called Beyond Rubik’s Cube, a STEM focused program. Rubik is something of a hero in his home country, having been honored numerous times for his contributions to culture, including the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Stephen, which is the highest award that a Hungarian citizen can receive.

40 years later, the continued popularity and iconic nature of the Rubik’s Cube speaks volumes about the mind of its creator. It’s a fiendishly simple idea built on interesting principles of mechanics and design. It has both captivated and frustrated millions and maintains a reputation as one of the great toys of all time. No one can say for sure what the perfect puzzle is, but it’s possible that Ernő Rubik came closer than anyone to solving it.

Featured image: dnd_project / Shutterstock

The ’80s Turn 40

As Pink Floyd so aptly put it in “Time” from Dark Side of the Moon, “Every year is getting shorter/never seem to find the time.” Scientists have noted that it seems that time accelerates as you get older. A side effect of that faster movement through the years is that your past may feel more recent than it actually was. Which is one reason that it’s worthy to note that, much to Generation X’s horror, the ’80s turn 40 today.

Culturally, America tends to act like the mid-20th Century is a lot closer to now that it is. World War II ended 75 years ago this coming August. JFK was assassinated 57 years ago, and The Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show 56 years ago. It’s understandable:  many people who defined the media for so long are Baby Boomers. Their interest, study, and promotion of that era made it seem more present.

President Ronald Reagan
“Hear that, ’80s kids? That’s 50 knocking.” (Mark Reinstein / Shutterstock)

Now that GenXers are shot-callers in so much of entertainment, the pervasiveness of ’80s and ’90s settings for films and TV series is growing. Just as the 1980s featured ’60s sentimentality in the form of shows like The Wonder Years, current popular projects like Stranger Things have that Reagan Era anchor. But even the GenXers knocking out those scripts might not realize themselves that 20 years ago isn’t 1990; it’s 2000. Millennials aren’t teens anymore; the youngest Millennials turn 24 this year. Hilariously, Pew Research is already flirting with putting a cap on Generation Z, suggesting that the kids who were born in 2012 might mark the end of that run (for the record, we should call the new kids the Avengers Generation). Time doesn’t march on. It runs.

Here’s where it really starts to hurt. What else turns 40 in 2020? How about The Shining, The Empire Strikes Back, Blues Brothers, and 9 to 5? Along with that film’s title tune, other 40-year-old songs now include Blondie’s “Call Me,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart;” on the album side, Iron Maiden made their self-titled debut (yes, Virginia; they were a new band once). BET began life as programming block on USA three years before it became its own network. The original Hawaii 5-0 signed off, but handed the reigns of Pacific crime-fighting to the brand-new Magnum P.I. A frankly unbelievable number of future stars and celebrities were born that year, including the likes of Michelle Williams, Kristen Bell, Ryan Gosling, Channing Tatum, Jessica Simpson, and Kim Kardashian. “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” an Uncanny X-Men story arc so popular that it’s been the subject of two live-action films and two animated adaptations, also ran throughout most of the year in 1980. Yes, GenXer . . . that was all 40 years ago.

What does it mean, aside from the fact that we’re all getting older? While our tastes may grow and change, we’ll always have a soft spot for the formative texts, films, and sounds that shaped our interests; science even suggests that we might stop looking for new music around age 30. And once we reach adulthood, we  just don’t want to get much older. As we try hold on to our youth, it just makes the old days seem closer than they really are. As Bob Mould sang on Sugar’s 1992 song “Changes,” “I want something like I remember/And I want something/That lasts forever.” They used to say that if you remembered the ’60s, you weren’t there. If you remember the ’80s, you were probably there; they were just longer ago than you’d like to think.

Featured image: Shutterstock