Friday, July 3, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Balin (1981)

Something unusual happened on the way home from work last night. I was on the train reading; I had my earbuds in, and I was listening to the research subject for this week's Hippies vs. Punks post, Marty Balin's solo debut full-length record, Balin (1981), when suddenly I could take no more and thumbed my iPod over to Interpol's El Pintor (2014).

This is out of the ordinary because even taxing albums, like last week's Land Speed Record (1982), I am able to fully immerse myself in repeated non-stop listening for the duration of the work week. But Balin's slick commercial amalgamation of disco-pop-rock proved too much for me.

To get the sonic flavor of the album all one need do is sample the lead track, "Hearts" (see the YouTube above), which reached #8 on the singles pop charts, the highest position a song by Marty Balin ever achieved.

"Hearts" is a perfect example of the default sensibility of white middle-class America at the dawn of the Reagan Age. A ballad dominated by its "Cinderella's Ball" high school slow dance synthesized keyboards and its back beat, "Hearts" conjures up a time of suburban prosperity, stability and safety.

The other single from Balin to chart was "Atlanta Lady," another lite rock ballad with a discernible back beat:

Interestingly, Marty Balin didn't write any of the material on Balin besides sharing a credit for "Lydia!," my favorite track on the record, a disco rocker that has the Jefferson Airplane founder singing about subways and freeway overpasses:

Balin is a largely pristine commercial album. It reached #35 on the Billboard charts. (The only clunker is "Elvis and Marilyn," a song co-authored by Leon RussellKim Fowley and Dyan Diamond.) As Stephen Thomas Erlewine reports in his AllMusic review, Balin is a valuable aural document of the early 1980s rock-disco-soul steady state:
Marty Balin left Jefferson Starship in 1978, not long after "Miracles" gave the group a Top Ten soft rock hit in 1975, thereby providing a window into the world the singer inhabited when he went solo in 1981 with Balin. He largely abandoned songwriting -- he collaborated on one song on the record -- in the pursuit of being an AOR superstar. The 1981 eponymous album was indeed a hit thanks to the gorgeous soft rock staple "Hearts," written by longtime friend Jesse Barish, as was a good chunk of the rest of the album. Some of Balin follows the direction of "Hearts" -- "Atlanta Lady" and "Music Is the Light" both softly shimmer -- but the album overall plays like a sampler of the mainstream rock sounds of 1981. On "Spotlight" and "I Do Believe in You," guitars are cranked up to 11 so they can fill an arena, "Tell Me More" cops some of Michael McDonald's Doobie Brothers disco-soul, and "You Left Your Mark on Me" and "Elvis and Marilyn" flirt with new wave while "Lydia!" outright embraces it, sounding a bit like Donnie Iris. Maybe this hodgepodge didn't do much to establish Balin as a recording star at the time -- certainly it didn't please some Jefferson Starship fans -- but as an artifact of early-'80s rock, it's wildly fun and somewhat compelling.
I chose Balin for today's post because it was produced in 1981, and I thought it would be interesting to contrast the creative efforts of a Founding Father of the San Francisco Sound of the 1960s (the sound more than any other that defined the Hippie Zeitgeist) with a Hardcore Punk album like Land Speed Record or a New Wave Hip Hop/House Music record like Tom Tom Club, both also produced in 1981. Plus, having recently viewed Gimme Shelter, I was impressed by Marty Balin's display of personal physical courage when he jumped into the pit in front of the Altamont stage and mixed it up with the Hells Angels.

The takeaway is the obvious one. By 1981 all fight or even the ability to critique society was bleached out of the Hippies. They were integrated back into the mainstream capitalist paradigm as entrepreneurs, lawyers, tradesmen, accountants, what have you; they were looking for and sometimes achieving commercial comfort. Of course a society with a background sound of BalinThe Doobie Brothers and Earth Wind & Fire is long gone. It seems from this vantage point a society more orderly than anything we will ever again encounter. Maybe it was that orderliness, that saccharine commercial tidiness with the compact clean guitar solos set off in spotlight which proved too much for me.

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