I enjoy marking certain pop culture milestones and anniversaries. It helps bring largely forgotten creative achievements back into the light, years or decades after they first made a splash. In keeping with that spirit, this summer marks thirty-five years since I first heard the just-released debut album by a rather unassuming rock singer/songwriter from Detroit named Marshall Crenshaw (the album’s title being, appropriately enough, Marshall Crenshaw). In 2017, it remains one of the finest pop-rock albums of its kind ever made.
Crenshaw’s band on this debut consists of himself on guitar, his brother Robert on drums, and Chris Donato on bass–a small combo playing Crenshaw’s songs in a pop style positively oozing with the influences of Buddy Holly and other late-’50s rockers, and, of course, the early Beatles (with a little rockabilly thrown in for good measure).
In fact, Crenshaw had once portrayed John Lennon in the touring company of the ’70s stage show Beatlemania (well, nobody’s perfect), and had a small role as Holly in the 1987 feature film La Bamba.
The sound on the Marshall Crenshaw album is free of frills and clutter–just the trio, with a few vocal and guitar overdubs to enhance the overall sound. But oh, those songs! Crenshaw is an intelligent, clever, and straightforward lyricist, able to give age-old themes of love found and/or lost a fresh look, without clouding the picture with time worn clichés, pesky metaphors, or obscure meanings. This becomes evident in the first few bars of the brilliant opening track, “There She Goes Again,” which sets mood for the rest of the album. The tempo is upbeat, and the melody ridiculously catchy, but Crenshaw sings of how he often catches sight of his ex-girlfriend driving past his home with her new guy in tow. Even though he had convinced himself he’s over her, he admits:
“…It makes no difference how I’ve tried,
I get that feeling when she drives on by,
And there she goes again with another guy…”
He would continue to write a truckload of incisive and frighteningly relatable songs about the ups and downs of romance, both recent and long past. Listening to them, you don’t have to suffer from paranoia to suspect Crenshaw has been spying on you during some of the most joyous and heartbreaking moments of your life. Many of his songs seem to say, “I’ve been there, pal. I know what’s going through your mind.”
The best known track on this debut album is perhaps “Someday, Someway,” which was released as a single and became Crenshaw’s only Top 40 hit. As bouncy and fun as it is, though, it’s not even the strongest song on the album; that’s how good this debut collection is. Crenshaw and his band retain an amazing consistency throughout. Other highlights here include the sock-hop energy of “She Can’t Dance,” the mini-classic “Cynical Girl,” the lovely “Mary Anne”–oh, hell, it would make more sense just to list all of them (but I won’t). He also throws in his cover of the 1962 Arthur Alexander hit “Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)” which fits in well among the originals.
Crenshaw has never been one to crave superstardom, even during the heady days of this first album. At that time, MTV was only a year old, but had already become a pop culture sensation. Record companies quickly learned the promotional value of music videos, and got busy cranking them out for their artists. The New Wave of British acts, with their techno-pop sounds, quirky clothing, make-up, and dyed hair (and that was just the guys) was especially perfect for MTV. Alas, Crenshaw wasn’t.
He didn’t seem to want any part of it. His sole “concept” video–as opposed to an excerpt from a live stage performance–was for the single “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” off his follow-up album, Field Day. In it, he doesn’t look particularly comfortable or happy, which no doubt led to it becoming his only such promotional clip. He also wasn’t the best interviewee, being a man of few words and frustratingly brief answers (even Dick Clark wasn’t able to get much out of him during their chat on American Bandstand). But, as the cliché goes, he’s always preferred his songs to do the speaking for him. You can, however, catch an interview or two with him on YouTube.
From Field Day onward, Crenshaw experimented with production techniques, additional instruments, and tunes that needed a few listens for them to sink in. Field Day pretty much picks up where Marshall Crenshaw leaves off, but with a muddier sound that many listeners weren’t crazy about (including me). The songs, however, continue to make memorably pointed comments and observations about life and love.
As much as his resistance of crass commercialism may have affected his record sales, Crenshaw continued to release several superb albums throughout the ’80s and ’90s, all chock full of his recognizable, jangly guitar sounds and catchy riffs. And, again, the Beatlesque quality of his songwriting remained top-notch from one album to the next, although he began to collaborate more often, and include a higher number of cover versions with each successive album.
His most consistent albums include Mary Jean and 9 Others (1987), Life’s Too Short (1991), and #447 (1999). There are just too many impressive songs to give the attention here that they deserve, ranging from slaphappy romps (“Wild Abandon” on Mary Jean and 9 Others, “Fantastic Planet of Love” on Life’s Too Short) to melancholy break-up songs (“All I Know Right Now” on Field Day, and perhaps his most remarkable composition, “Walkin’ Around,” on Life’s Too Short).
This excellent “Best of” album is probably the most convenient way to hear a well-chosen sampling of twenty-two of his best songs, including his first single, “Something’s Gonna Happen,” a blast of pure pop-rock energy from 1981.
In recent years, Crenshaw has given up releasing full-length albums in favor of EPs, a form popularized in the 1960s as 45 singles that contained three or four songs instead of just one on each side. Today, he still performs in smaller venues, often as a guest performer with other bands, just to let us know that his genius is still alive and kicking.
Now that you’ve reached the end of this week’s post, do yourself a favor and hop on over to YouTube, find “There She Goes Again” and give it a listen. If it hits you the way it hit me back in ’82, you’ll probably want to sit back and enjoy more of Marshall Crenshaw. If not…well…better check your pulse!
Until next week…