12 (More) Forgotten Classics by Women-Led New Wave Bands

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Last week, the New York Times posted a piece by Doug Brod titled 12 Forgotten Classics by Women-Led New Wave Bands. Brod writes: “……for every Kate Bush, Blondie, Bow Wow Wow or Go-Go, there were lesser-known female artists who exuded both sharp, shoulder-padded glamour and beehived, boho cool, often mixed with quick wit and sass.”

It’s an admirable dozen, evenly weighted with some of my favorites (The Waitresses, Josie Cotton, Rachel Sweet, Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, The Passions, Holly & The Italians) and tracks I had forgotten or never heard before (The Cosmopolitans, Nervus Rex, Spider, Robin Lane & The Chartbusters, Pulsallama, Suzanne Fellini).

Kenneth Walsh of KennethInThe212 blog posted a link to the article noting “I guess every writer finds himself saying, ‘How did I not write this’ at some point or another…..Seriously, how did I NOT write this?”

(Update: Kenneth has posted his list HERE)

I thought I would take the bait and compile my own list. And here we are:

12 (More) Forgotten Classics by Women-Led New Wave Bands

Of course, “forgotten” is subjective. Is The Flirts’ Don’t Put Another Dime In The Jukebox forgotten just because nobody can remember the band name or mis-identifies them as the Bangles? If I say “I might like you better if we slept together” to the most casual fan of new wave music and they get the reference but can’t place the band, does that make Romeo Void forgotten? Can a song be considered forgotten when it is on the soundtrack of one of the most popular video games of all time? (I’m looking at you, Passions. With a side-eye towards Romeo Void as well).

Both of these lists assume that you are already familiar with prominent post-punk / new wave acts like The Raincoats, Marine Girls, Slits, Go-Go’s, Blondie, Berlin, Eurythmics, Motels, Altered Images, Bananarama, Divinyls, Missing Persons, Pretenders,  Kim Wilde, Siouxsie, Yaz, Nena, Lena, Nina… the list goes on.

So – now that I have set the playing field, here are my picks – chosen by a middle-aged New Yorker who still loves the music of the 80’s but with little nostalgia for the decade. The music was great, but it was the pits to live through. Don’t kid yourself.

The Shirts – Laugh and Walk Away (1979)

The Shirts were the CBGB’s band that got away. Rubbing shoulders with the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads did not lead to worldwide success, although they garnered a few hits in Europe. Laugh and Walk Away was a single from their second LP Streetlight Shine.

Post-1981 breakup, lead singer Annie Golden’s Hang Up The Phone was a highlight of the Sixteen Candles soundtrack. Her eclectic career is now in its 5th decade, spanning film (Hair), Broadway (Leader of the Pack), and television (Cheers, Orange Is The New Black).  By all accounts she’s also one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. And The Shirts do get back together from time to time.

Hilary – Drop Your Pants (1983)

Hilary Blake released one EP – the Stephen Hague-produced Kinetic. Both the title tune and Drop Your Pants were voted “Screamer of the Week” – the coveted top-voted song by listeners to New York’s influential WLIR alternative radio station. Drop Your Pants – with a repetitive pulsating chorus of “Drop you pants around your ankles / You make me shiver when you deliver” was Hilary’s commentary on how ridiculous the fear of sex in United States was at the time.

Hilary and Hague were married for many years but had divorced before she died of cancer in 2007.

Jane Aire and the Belvederes – Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache (1979)

Jane Aire, aka Jane Ashley was one of several acts (The Waitresses and Rachel Sweet among them) featured on Liam Sternberg’s Akron compilation LP. Like Chrissie Hynde before her, Ashley left the wilds of Ohio to record in London, where her Belvederes were the UK band also known as The Edge: Lu Edmonds, Gavin Povey, Glyn Havard and Jon Moss (later of Culture Club).

Following a couple of Stiff singles, an LP was released on Virgin with background vocals provided by Ms. Sweet and Kirsty MacColl .  The album features several choice covers: Pearl Harbour & The Explosions’ Driving, The Supremes’ Come See About Me, and this Northern Soul classic by Johnny Johnson & His Bandwagon which was also later recorded by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

Mari Wilson – Just What I Always Wanted (1982)

Mari Wilson was the epitome of the “beehive boho cool” that Brod writes about in the New York Times piece. And the foot-high beehive was her real hair. Do other people consider this song forgotten? It’s a default earworm in my head, so my perception may be off. But I am happy to introduce it to anyone who doesn’t know it.

Just What I Always Wanted was Wilson’s biggest hit – reaching the UK top 10 accompanied by a video which gave glimpses of the dynamic stage show Mari and her Wilsations were famous for. As it turned out, being a pop star wasn’t just what she always wanted, and she moved on to successful forays in jazz and stage musicals. Wilson may not have garnered more pop hits, but her catalogue is considerable and definitely worth checking out.

Face To Face – 10-9-8 (1984)

Laurie Sargent fronted the Boston-based quintet Face To Face. In the 1984 movie Streets of Fire, the fictional band Ellen Aim and The Attackers were played onscreen by Diane Lane and the male members of Face to Face, with Lane lip-synching Laurie‘s lead vocals on several tracks. 10-9-8 was Face To Face’s debut single on Epic records and also their biggest hit – peaking at #38 on the US Billboard Top 100.

Book Of Love – Boy (1985)

Boy was the debut single by Book of Love, a New York by way of Philadelphia synthpop band fronted by Susan Ottaviano. Signed by Seymour Stein to his Sire records, the band gained exposure opening for Depeche Mode on their 1985 & 1986 tours.

Although Boy was popular enough in NY to become a WLIR “Screamer of the Week” in February 1985, the song did not chart nationally until 2001, when a Peter Rauhofer remix topped the U.S. Dance Charts. In a 2016 Village Voice interview, keyboardist/songwriter Ted Ottaviano revealed that the song was written about the gay East Village night spot Boy Bar.

Burns Sisters Band – I Wonder Who’s Out Tonight (1986)

Nowadays, Ithaca New York’s Burns Sisters are a well regarded folk duo with 10 albums under their belt. Back in the mid-80’s, The Burns Sisters Band launched as a quintet of siblings giving the Bangles a run for their money. Marie, Annie, Jeannie, Sheila and Terry had the WLIR “Screamer of the Week” with this single in July of 1986 – perfect listening while takin’ the time to do your hair / puttin’ on something HOT to wear.

The Tourists – So Good To Be Back Home Again (1980)

The Tourists’ output included three LPs and a handful of hit singles in their native UK. A peppy cover of Dusty Springfield’s I Only Wanna Be With You scraped the US charts as well. Keyboardist Ann Lennox shared lead vocal duties with guitarist Pete Coombs. There was also a guy named David Stewart in the band. After The Tourists split in 1980, David and Ann went on to do some other stuff you may have heard of, but their Tourists output is seldom mentioned and definitely worth a revisit, starting with this track – a top 10 hit in the UK and Ireland.

Put Your Back To It – November Group  (1983)

I actually ventured into the comments section of the NYT article (I know – the comments section can be a scary place. But for the most part, this time it wasn’t.) There were quite a few mentions of this alt band from the Boston new wave scene. November Group formed in the early 1980s with Ann Prim and Kearney Kirby, both previously of Wunderkind. Put Your Back To It was a single from their second LP- Persistent Memories.

Suburban Lawns – Janitor (1981)

“What do you do?”

Su Tissue was trying to have a conversation in a noisy room. She misheard the response “I’m a janitor” as “Oh, my genitals.” And a song chorus was born.

Suburban Lawns was formed in Long Beach, California in 1978 by CalArts students William “Vex Billingsgate” Ranson and Sue “Su Tissue” McLane. Their first single Gidget Goes To Hell may be more likely to turn up on new wave compilations, but Janitor – the lead single from their self-titled IRS LP – is an overlooked gem.

Cristina – Is That All There Is? (1980)

This slashing cover of the Peggy Lee classic was produced with broken glass and cuckoo clocks by August Darnell, a.k.a. Kid Creole. When the single was originally released in 1980, songwriters Lieber and Stoller successfully sued to have it withdrawn, objecting to the lyric changes embracing drugs, physical abuse and the club scene. They later changed their mind.

Cristina, aka New York socialite Cristina Monet-Palaci Zilkha recorded two highly regarded but commercially unsuccessful albums for ZE records before turning her attention elsewhere.  She succumbed to coronavirus at the age of 64 on March 31, 2020.

And as sure as I’m standing here talking at you, I was not ready for that kind of a come down.

Strawberry Switchblade – Let Her Go (1985)

Strawberry Switchblade – Jill Bryson and Rose McDowall – were a Glasgow duo formed in 1981. They released one album and had a top 5 UK hit with Since Yesterday. Follow-up single Let Her Go and a synth-pop cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene also charted – especially in Japan – before the duo split in 1986. Both continued to make music but were unable to recreate their Switchblade success.

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A Christmas Without Miracles: The 1987 “Motown” Christmas Special

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I have this pet peeve… it’s a situation that usually occurs at a party or in a bar situation. Someplace with a jukebox or a DJ where the alcohol flows freely. An overplayed 60’s soul hit like Respect or Dock Of The Bay starts to play and some booze bag sloshes over and says “OH I LOVE MOTOWN! I love Aretha and James BROWN and the Shirelles and the Ronettes and OTIS and ALL the rest of the Motown acts.”

Honey. Sit down. Let me get you a glass of water. We need to talk.

While I appreciate your enthusiasm, let’s set the record straight: Sam Cooke. Otis Redding. James Brown. The Shirelles. The Ronettes. They are NOT Motown acts. Never were. And while Aretha Franklin is FROM Motown, aka Detroit, she was never ON Motown records.

Referring to every black artist who recorded soul music in the 60’s as a “Motown” singer is lazy, insulting and possibly a teensy bit racist. Kapeesh? With that said, perhaps I should cut people some slack. I know, we are all very busy and don’t pay a whole lot of attention to minutiae. And besides, sometimes the record labels themselves are a little guilty of causing confusion. Case in point: The 1987 Motown Merry Christmas special.

First, a little context: In 1984 the Motown 25 TV special was a blockbuster ratings success, Motown 25with all the former stars of the record label coming home to celebrate Motown’s 25th Anniversary and kiss the ring of founder Berry Gordy. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The 4 Tops, The Temptations, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells and many others made appearances. Lionel Richie reunited with the Commodores! Smokey Robinson reunited with the Miracles! Diana Ross reunited with the Supremes for a minute and half before Miss Ross allegedly pushed Mary Wilson out of her way! That last part was edited out of the broadcast…. but anyway… the real highlight of the show was the reunited Jackson 5, followed by Michael Jackson’s performance of Billie Jean, which introduced the moonwalk to the world and we were never the same again.

Fast forward three years – the Motown brand was still being milked for all it was worth, even if their current roster of artists were not exactly burning up the charts. I mean, even DeBarge had left the label by this point. But a nostalgic look back at Motown with a Christmas special seemed like a good idea, as most of the top Motown acts had released holiday LPs during the label’s heyday. In fact, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson & Miracles each released two Christmas LPs on the label. But… you do have to get the acts to come back and perform for a TV special, right?

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For whatever reason (read: money) only the Temptations and Smokey Robinson are on hand for this star-studded Motown Merry Christmas, which was taped – not in Detroit – but at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, California.

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The show aired December 14, 1987 on NBC, hosted by Philip Michael Thomas, the guy who wasn’t Don Johnson on the hit NBC-TV show Miami Vice. Interesting spot of trivia: Philip Michael ThomasThomas, notorious for his over-inflated ego, is credited with coining the acronym EGOT for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony wins, as he often crowed in interviews that he would win one of each. As of 2018, he has never been nominated for any of them.

The show opens with our humble host reading a version of “Twas The Night Before Christmas” that name-checks some Motown artists, including Stevie Wonder, who is not there.

This segues into a performance by the 1987 version of The Temptations (which means no Eddie Kendricks or David Ruffin). They are wearing nightshirts and slippers as they Temptations White Christmasperform a doo wop version of White Christmas. Although the group had recorded the song as a ballad on their 1970 Christmas album, that version is scrapped in favor of the Drifters uptempo arrangement, originally released on Atlantic records in 1954. In any case, it’s a fun showcase for the deep bass voice of original member Melvin Franklin.

Pointer Sisters MJNext, The Pointer Sisters sing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, a track from the very first A Very Special Christmas album, which had just been released and is now considered a classic. Their performance is spirited, but once again a reminder: The Pointer Sisters have nothing to do with Motown, although a kid imitating Michael Jackson does makes an appearance.

Redd Foxx Lola Falana

For the comedy portion of the program, Redd Foxx arrives onstage dressed as a pimped-out Santa Claus along with Marsha Warfield of NBC’s Night Court and Lola Falana of many a Las Vegas lounge. Redd performs a rap and the result is exactly what you would imagine a Redd Foxx rap might sound like. Then things get serious as they read a fake letter from an imaginary homeless child and Santa Foxx promises to find him on Christmas. So I guess the kid will have to fend for his imaginary self until then.

Side Note: Although Redd Foxx is best remembered today for Sanford and Son and his other sitcom work, he was also known as “The King of the Party Records” -with over 50 raunchy comedy LPs released on a dozen different record labels. None of these labels was Motown.

Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love deliver a medley of songs from the Phil Spector Darlene RonnieChristmas Album, which, of course, was not a Motown production. Darlene sings a generous portion of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Just the previous Christmas, she had performed the song on David Letterman’s show for the first time, launching a tradition that would continue for the next 28 years.

I forgot to mention: as this is the 1980’s, there is a large gaggle of dancers present throughout the entire show. During this segment they are dressed primarily in gold mylar, gyrating around Ronnie and Darlene as they herd from one end of the stage to the other. One of the more prominent dancers is Michael Perea, a staple of 80’s music videos for many artists including Michael Jackson, Cher and especially Madonna, having appeared in her videos as well as on the Virgin Tour and Live Aid performance. In the mid-80’s, I wanted to BE Michael Perea, shaking my tambourine to Dress You Up and Dancing On The Ceiling with Lionel Richie. I was sorry to learn recently that he died of AIDS complications in 1989.

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Next up – another medley: Desiree Coleman, one of two artists appearing here (besides Smokey) that was actually signed to the Motown label at the time. Desiree sings Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Desiree ColemanShe is decked out in a tacky 80’s outfit full of sequins and linebacker shoulder pads. I mean… all the costumes in this show are hideously dated, but this one is at the top of the very flammable acrylic heap.

Philip Michael Thomas is onstage with her but thankfully does not sing. Apropos of nothing, Desiree hits a Mariah Carey dog-whistle note at the end of her segment and Thomas leads her away. I’m not a fan.

Smokey sings a portion of a forgettable ballad before Natalie Cole comes in with her soulful rendition of Donny Hathaway’s This Christmas (Side note: do yourself a favor and check out Dave Holmes dissection of Patti LaBelle’s disastrous version of this song from the 1996 National Christmas Tree lighting. Really.)Natalie Smokey2

I remembered This Christmas as a highlight of the program, thinking that Smokey and Natalie had some real chemistry. Re-watching it now, I see that it’s all Natalie’s doing. SHE has chemistry. All we see is the back of Smokey’s head as she sings her way towards him. Together they segue into Give A Little Love On Christmas Day, and it sure does seem like someone’s gonna get a little love before Christmas day even gets here. Oh – Philip Michael Thomas and Desiree Coleman are still onstage too. Thankfully, Philip Michael Thomas still does not sing.

The Temptations are back with a very nice version of Silent Night, featuring the tight Temptations Silent Nightsoulful harmonies that are their trademark. They end their performance with a declaration: “Merry Christmas from the Motown Family…” as if they are here to represent the rest of the “family” who had to go visit the in-laws and just couldn’t make it this year.

After some more Redd Foxx shenanigans, Run DMC (who were on Profile records) performs Christmas In Hollis, which was also on the A Very Special Christmas LP. Quick geography lesson: Hollis is in Queens, New York, which is about as far from Detroit, Michigan as the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, California.

Stephanie Mills sings the R&B ballad When You Love Someone (It’s Christmas Every Day), a song that they twice mention was written by our very own Redd Foxx. What they don’t mention is that the song was recorded by former Motown artists Gladys Knight and The Pips, who are not here.Stephanie Mills2

It’s ironic that Mills appears on a Motown special for a couple of reasons: Not only was she never a Motown artist, but her greatest success was playing 13 year old Dorothy in The Wiz on Broadway, but when Motown produced the movie adaption, 34 year old Diana Ross was given the role.

Smokey and the Temptations are back again to sing The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire). This is fine. But where are the Miracles? Where are the 4 Tops? Gimme some Pips! My kingdom for a Marvelette!

Marsha Warfield

Marsha Warfield reappears dressed as a glittery bag lady as we head into the closing 8+ minute medley. Carrie McDowell is introduced. She is the only caucasian on the bill and the only other artist besides Desiree and Smokey signed to Motown at the time. Carrie McDowellThat said, she was dropped shortly after her debut LP tanked that same year. McDowell has the featured spot here… and this girl can SANG, that’s for sure, but…. this also means that all the other great singers behind her: Natalie Cole, Darlene Love, Pointer Sisters, etc. are given much shorter solos – some are reduced to a single line of a song. Poor Ronnie Spector has one duet line with Stephanie Mills.

Lola finaleLola Falana has a very brief solo with some very odd stilted physical movements, which I always attributed to the severe multiple sclerosis flareup that plagued her at the time. But upon repeated viewing, she moves quite naturally when she steps back in line with the others. So I don’t know what that was about.

The cast sings approximately 15 seconds of every holiday song ever written. Phillip Michael Thomas is singing now but nobody gives him a mic. And then we’re done. Credits roll. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

In 2000, Diana Ross attempted to launch a Supremes reunion – the first time they would have performed together since the Motown 25 special. Unfortunately, very little money was offered to Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong and both declined to participate. In their place were installed Lynda Lawrence and Scherrie Payne (Freda’s sister), both members of the Supremes in the 1970’s – years after Ross had left. Fans didn’t buy it and the tour fizzled out quickly. As with this program, it was just another example of the Motown name being slapped on something and fans were expected to eat it up.

Of course, if we are talking about drunk people at a party, maybe they do fall for it. But some of us are bound to stand up and say… Honey, no. We need to talk.

Motown Merry Christmas TV guide