How do 18-year-old songs by Joan Jett, Robert Palmer, Def Leppard, and others hold up today? Whitney Pastorek gives 'em another listen

By Whitney Pastorek
Updated October 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Joan Jett: London Features

Rock on, Joan! Rating the hits of this week in ’88

Hello, Flashbackers! Kudos to all of you who jumped on the ”Cruel Summer”/Karate Kid tip when I left the door open last week; you have proved your mettle as true children of the ’80s. (I ask you, though: No love for the Ace of Base cover?) I’m thinking about continuing to test your considerable skills by instituting some sort of regular trivia feature here; stay tuned to see if/how that works out. Although mostly I’m still dreaming of a day when everyone understands the concept of the column before writing in to yell at me for not putting a Madonna song on the list…

Billboard‘s Top 10 singles for the week ending Oct. 1, 1988:

10. ”What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy),” Information Society
I’ll admit right now that I always sort of thought this band was British. They’re not. They’re from Minneapolis. But in 1988, not knowing that I was going to grow up to be the stunningly brilliant music critic I’ve become, I just grouped them into that little box in my head labeled ”British New Wave” and nestled them into a corner behind Erasure. Upon this most recent listen, certain things stand out: First, I have had the song playing on repeat for about 15 minutes, and I’m not at all sick of it. Second, it has factory noises, which are slowly but surely becoming a surefire indicator of me liking a song. Third, it really reminds me of riding my bike past Gavin McMillan’s house, for some reason. Finally, everyone absolutely must go here to read singer Kurt Harland’s grumpy account of the time VH1 ambushed him for an episode of Bands Reunited. Although I will say, for a man who works in the videogame industry, that is one cornea-sizzling webpage. B

9. ”Simply Irresistible,” Robert Palmer
Palmer’s got this great bar-band voice — if I didn’t know better I’d believe he’s from Minneapolis — and the riff, that simple five-note descending scale, is addictive (very much like love!). But my biggest question about the late soul man is, why did he always have to back himself with the group of bored women? I know it was his signature thing or whatever, but if you really watch the video, you’ll see he’s totally charismatic in his own right, all eyebrows and suave irony. In fact, I mostly watch him. Then again, it could be because that’s more of where my, you know, interest lies, as opposed to in the breasts of pink-clad models. Anyway, I’ve got a couple other complaints here — neither of which really bothers me all that much, but it’s my job to articulate these things. First, there’s the fact that I’ve been listening to this song for 18 years and I’m not sure I ever knew the line was ”She’s so completely kissable/ Our lives are indivisible.” That’s a lovely sentiment! But if you’d asked me earlier today what Bobby was saying, I’d have gone with ”She’s talkably inkissable/ a lass of individible.” Or, more likely, I’d have dodged the question. The point is, Mr. Palmer needed to enunciate just a smidge. The other issue is thornier: I think this song is, like, a minute too long. B-

8. ”I Hate Myself for Loving You,” Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
I would like this song way better right now if Pink wasn’t currently ripping it off for the Sunday Night Football theme song. Except, wait! That’s not the song’s fault. That’s Pink’s fault! Or NBC’s fault! I should not take it out on Joan! Okay. Better now. I love this song! ”I wanna walk but I run back to you”?? That’s a genius lyric. That’s a lyric we can all identify with. Which is good, because that lyric is sort of the sum total of the song; well, that and the title. But there are other yummy things going on here, like Joan’s little aow!s. And the part where the music stops and we all just clap along to the chorus. And that awesome guitar riff. And the ”a-way-yee-ay-yee-ay-yee-ay-yee…” part. And Joan’s totally ripped voice. And her awesome hair. And I think I have to do some karaoke now, excuse me. A-

7. ”Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Guns n’ Roses
And whaddaya know: We have now come to the reason why I was incessantly riding my bike past Gavin McMillan’s house. Okay. So on the first day of 7th grade, I started to notice this new boy who was in every single one of my classes. Not orchestra, because only I was that geeky, but all of the rest of them. It was fate. Fate had brought me Gavin McMillan, a blond boy from California who had eyes of the bluest skies and wore Vans with flames on them and spent his afternoons riding on the freestyle bike ramp his dad had built in their yard. He was the coolest boy I had ever seen. Sadly, he’d already given his heart to another: Guns n’ Roses. And because he loved Gn’R, I decided I should too. But I was not allowed to own Appetite for Destruction, because my parents were not so much down with the skulls on the album cover (remind me sometime to tell you about The Great Poison/Open Up and Say… Ahh! Argument of this same year), and so Gavin would let me listen to Appetite for Destruction on his Walkman every day on the bus home from school. In a very short period of time, I was genuinely smitten with the boy and the band. But like all of my boy stories, this one does not have a very happy ending: One day in art class, for whatever reason, Gavin suddenly rested his blond head on my shoulder, right there in front of everybody. And I laughed, and then I freaked, and I pushed him off me. Oh my God, why did he do that? What did it mean? And why, like the idiot freak tomboy I was/am, did I push him away??? I don’t know. And I don’t know if that was what put our relationship forever out of reach (or if it’s because I was/am this idiot freak tomboy), but Gavin, if you’ve Googled yourself and are reading this, I regret that moment to this very day. Thanks for teaching me about Gn’R, dude. While we were clearly never meant to be, I can’t hear this album without thinking of you. A+

6. ”Don’t Be Cruel,” Cheap Trick
I guess this Elvis cover is reminiscent of their ”I Want You to Want Me” style, which most reasonable people prefer. I was always more of a ”The Flame” fan, myself. And anyway, do reasonable people really want to hear half-baked Elvis covers? Robin Zander has the rockabilly voice to pull this off, but there’s nothing at all adventurous or interesting happening here. It’s like something a wedding band might pull out to get Grandma on the floor, shakin’ her thang. Rates a big fat snore. C

5. ”Red Red Wine,” UB40
Hey there, UB40! Last time we talked — for 1991’s ”Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” — I called your island vibe ”antiseptic” and referred to this song as an ”atrocity.” Well, at least it’s a short atrocity, about 3 minutes that zip by really fast, especially when you’re looking for the file that contains your last reference to UB40. Anyway, I don’t like this song for personal reasons, but you nice people have already sat through one endless story about my thwarted teenage love life today, so I won’t bore you with the details of my doomed crush on a cheerleader named Derek Redwine who used to give me rides home from high school. Let’s just say it’s insipid, and also that this cover completely ruins the point of the song itself, thanks to the cheesy quasi-reggae backbeat and lead singer’s dopey accent. Now, the Neil Diamond original? That’s a song. Go download it right now. You will understand the desperate power of the lyrics immediately. Neil is begging the wine to work, not just casually chatting about his drinking problem before ambling back down the beach to hit on someone new. Neil is real. UB40 makes me want to shoot a pineapple. C-

4. ”One Good Woman,” Peter Cetera
This is tricky, because my brain thinks it likes this song. You see, every Peter Cetera song sounds kinda just like every other Peter Cetera song, and thus it is easy to pretend this is just ”Glory of Love” with a different arrangement or something. But it’s not. It’s got simpering verses and annoying piano tinkling and a bridge that sounds like the producer turned down the levels on everything accidentally and then just left it there. And not even Peter’s awesome strangled-Muppet voice can save it. No, no. This will not do. I am going to pretend like I never heard this song. D+

(P.S.: Take a second and watch Cetera in this duet with Amy Grant, because the facial contortions necessary to get that voice out of his face are truly hysterical. Oh, Peter Cetera. I am sorry I just had to drop a D+ on you.)

3. ”I’ll Always Love You,” Taylor Dayne
Hahahaha. Taylor Dayne’s real name is ”Leslie Wunderman.” Hahahahaha. But when’s the last time you ever really gave this sucker a listen? There is so much going on here that is not okay. For example, whoever is playing the synthesizer is clearly doing it with his or her elbow and needs to let up a little. It has a completely unnecessary sax solo that comes from nowhere and then disappears, never to be heard from again. The backup singers are working awfully hard, and their responses — Taylor: ”For all that you are…” Backup singers: ”ALL THAT YOU ARE!” — remind me a little bit of those Bud Light ”Real Men of Genius” commercials where the announcer’s every word is repeated by an overzealous rocker dude. And Taylor herself — gosh, you know, I never really noticed it before, but she sounds kinda pissed. ”I’m so happy that you’re mine!” she growls. Really? B-

2. ”Love Bites,” Def Leppard
Wow. I never noticed this before, but Joe Elliott and Taylor Dayne sound a lot alike. And I think Joe Elliott might have a slightly higher range. Um, what can I say about this song that won’t totally undermine my credibility? Oh, right, I’ve already done that several times over. Okay, fine. I freakin’ love Def Leppard and have been to a Def Leppard concert within the last two years. I dream of the day that I can be the lead singer in a Def Leppard cover band, provided we transpose the songs down a bit, because Joe Elliott’s range is significantly higher than mine. But, like, hello? Four-part harmony? Wailing guitars? Hot vocoder breathing? The entire existence of the lyric, ”Love bleeds/ Love dies/ It’s no surprise”?? Bloody genius, is what it is. Don’t even come at me with your ”Pyromania was the far superior album” crap. We’re not talking about albums here, friend. We are talking about this song. This song, and the brilliance of the climactic boom-boom…boom that Rick Allen nails with his one poor little arm, and the long, high wail of ”Loooooooooove”that Joe uses to kick off the last set of choruses, a piercing, glimmering note that no human can hit, and some cannot even hear… Oh, it’s all just perfection. A

1. ”Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Bobby McFerrin
Before I jump down Mr. McFerrin’s supple, multi-talented throat, let me confess that I have very strong memories of thinking his line ”Here, I give you my phone number, when you worry, call me, I make you happy” was mildly hilarious, and I respect his ability to work the word ”litigate” into the rhyme scheme. This is also one of the very few pop songs I have ever seen my mother fall in love with — my poor mother, who tries so hard. (She wanted to check out Coldplay last Christmas because she’d heard so much about them, and I yelled at her and forbade it and bought her an Arcade Fire album instead. I don’t think she’s listened to it since. Does that make me a bad person, for doing that?) But think about it: There was a time in our lives when we were forced to endure endless radio airplay of both ”Red Red Wine” and this song, and we made it out alive. So here’s my final question to you this week, Flashbackers: What was the deal with us back then? What were we using these insidiously perky and incredibly annoying songs to get away from? What was so horrible about the fall of 1988 that it would drive us to such madness? Does anyone remember? Oh, right, and the grade. Okay, for degree of difficulty in making all those noises all by himself, Bobby gets an A. For everything else: C+