Retro Review: Marshall Crenshaw’s Stunning Debut, 40 Years Ago
Marking various pop culture milestones and anniversaries often helps bring largely forgotten creative achievements back into the light where they’ve always deserved to remain, years or decades after they first made a splash. In keeping with that spirit, April 28 marks forty years since a rather unassuming rock singer/songwriter from Detroit named Marshall Crenshaw released his first album (the title being, appropriate enough, Marshall Crenshaw). And what a joyous one it is.
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 dose of rockabilly thrown in for good measure). Indeed, Crenshaw had once portrayed John Lennon in the touring company of the ’70s stage show Beatlemania, and had a small role as Holly in the 1987 feature film La Bamba.
He moved to New York and spent most of his time playing clubs and absorbing the music that had become popular with the local culture. He also began writing songs that would comprise his first album, and a considerable boost came with the success of Robert Gordon’s 1981 version of “Someday, Someway,” which Crenshaw had written, but had yet record himself.
“Then right on top of that was my first single [‘Something’s Gonna Happen’]” he told an interviewer in 2009. “Radio stations were playing both simultaneously. Back in the day, it was kinda hard for me to get to know [Gordon], because he was just really hyper all the time. I was a little nervous around him. I saw him about 10 years ago, and he was in good spirits. I told him, ‘Man, that was just huge what you did for me when you recorded those tunes.” And he just kinda says, ‘Oh, shut up,’ in a friendly way, you know. It was a big deal. I hung out at the sessions. It was a huge door that opened and helped me to get somewhere in New York.”
“Something’s Gonna Happen” contributed immeasurably to Crenshaw’s reputation, and deservedly so. “[Alan Betrock]produced the record, he put it out, but the most important thing was he really believed in it, invested a lot of faith in it and promoted it in New York. It sort of clicked, but Alan was the guy who shoved the snowball down the hill. That was really monumental for me.”
Indeed, the energetic tune began Crenshaw’s recording career with a bang:
Like that single, 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. And oh, those songs! Crenshaw demonstrated himself to be an intelligent, clever, and straighforward lyricist, able to give age-old themes of love found and/or lost a fresh feel, without clouding the picture with time- worn cliches, pesky metaphors, or obscure meanings.
This becomes evident in the first few bars of the opening track, “There She Goes Again,” which is brilliant in its simplicity and sets the mood for the rest of the album. The tempo is upbeat, and the melody ridiculously catchy, as Crenshaw sings of how he watches his ex-girlfriend driving past his house with a her new guy in tow.
He would continue to write a truckload of incisive and frighteningly relatable songs about the ups and downs of romance — some expressing the hurt while it’s still fresh, while others speak to a broken heart that’s been relegated to the past. “While I was [in New York], I wrote ‘Someday, Someway’ and five or six of the other tunes on my first album,” he recalled to Spinner UK. “I wrote those in my hotel room. That was my next move in life, to be a recording artist. I actually had a sense of artistic direction and off I went.”
Many of the songs are indeed so easy to identify with as to nearly induce a bit of paranoia, suspecting that Crenshaw had been somehow spying on us during some of our most joyous — and heartbreaking — moments of life.
While “Someday, Someway” may be the best-known track on the album — and, shockingly, Crenshaw’s only Top 40 hit — it’s not necessarily the strongest song in the collection, which indicates how remarkably consistent the album is throughout. Other highlights here include the sock-hop energy of “She Can’t Dance,” and the mini-classic “Cynical Girl”— for which, he says, “I had the music first. That’s how it always works. As far as the words go, I remember having to go to court to pay a traffic ticket, and the words kinda popped into my head all at once. The meat of the song is where it says, ‘I hate TV,’ which is an oddball thing to say in a rock ’n’ roll song. Whenever I get an idea like that, that’s almost too stupid to put in a song, I always put it in. The thing about the girl is really window-dressing. At that time, I despised about 60 percent of mass culture. Now, it’s up to about 90. And ‘cynical’ maybe wasn’t the right word to use. Maybe I was talking about skepticism.”
Also on the first album is the lovely “Mary Anne,” and a cover of the 1962 Arthur Alexander hit “Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)’ which fits in well among the Crenshaw originals.
He objects to most labels that have been used to describe his music, such as “Power pop.” “First of all,” he says, “I can’t accept my stuff shoved into a sub-category. It doesn’t fit, and I don’t accept it. It minimizes my stuff, and that makes me nuts…I don’t go for that. Somebody in a review said I was ‘handy with a hook.’ I just hate stuff like that. My stuff, I really dig deep for it. I put a lot into it emotionally.”
He has also never been one to crave superstardom, even during the heady days of that first album. At the time of its release, MTV was less than a year old, but had already become an international pop culture sensation. Record companies quickly learned the promotional value of creating music videos, and got busy cranking them out for their artists. The New Wave of British acts, with their techno-pop sounds, quirky fashions, make-up, and dyed hair (and that was just the guys) was especially perfect for MTV. Alas, the clean-cut and unpretentious Marshall Crenshaw wasn’t.
He didn’t seem to want any part of it. His sole concept video — as opposed to an excerpt taken from a live concert 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 caused it to become his only such promotional clip. He also wasn’t the most eager 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).
You can, however, catch a few interviews with him on YouTube. He has, in more recent years, been considerably less reticent to sit down and talk about his music (and he did supply his own comments for each of the songs chosen for his “best of” CD, This Is Easy). He explained his somewhat curt answers from his earlier years in a 2020 podcast:
“That was one of the things I didn’t know how to do in the beginning. You do have to be careful about it. I was really thrown in at the deep end in the beginning, ‘cause all of the first press I got was really high profile [Melody Maker in the U.K., Rolling Stone in the U.S.]…I was new at the whole thing, new at the job, and didn’t have my rhetoric together very well.”
From Field Day onward, Crenshaw experimented with production techniques, additional instruments, and tunes longer than standard three-minute pop songs that perhaps weren’t as immediately “catchy” at first, requiring a few extra listens for them to sink in. Field Day pretty much picks up where Marshall Crenshaw leaves off, but with a muddier sound and heavy reverb on most of the tracks that many listeners weren’t crazy about. British producer Steve Lilliwhite, one of the industry’s hottest producers at the time, received quite a bit of flak for the overall sound of the album, which Crenshaw still defends to this day, insisting that the sonic characteristics were his idea. The songs themselves, 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, he continued to release several superb albums in a row throughout the ’80s and ’90s, all chock full of his recognizable, jangly guitar sounds, catchy riffs, and intelligent lyrics. Again, the Beatlesque quality of his songwriting remained top-notch from one album to the next, although he began to collaborate with other songwriters more often, and included a higher number of cover versions and instrumental tunes with each successive album. The pure exuberance of the earlier albums gave way somewhat to more introspective and wistful themes.
“My first two albums have a kind of pop energy and youthful enthusiasm, even though I was 28 and 29, that the succeeding ones don’t have,” he readily concedes. “So to put it another way, Downtown was the first record I did that doesn’t have the youthful enthusiasm and pop energy that my first two records have. You can’t stay young forever; it’s foolish to try. And you shouldn’t make the same record over and over again. I never wanted to. Downtown is kind of introspective, maybe world-weary in places.”
That’s not to say that he had lost his sense of fun. As his songwriting continued to evolve, it also stayed true to those roots of unadulterated, carefree rock & roll, with plenty of toe-tapping numbers alongside his more “mature” reflections of life, the passage of time, memories, regrets, and all that comes with a growing backlog of life experiences.
His most consistent albums of that period include Mary Jean and 9 Others (1987), Life’s Too Short (1991), and several recorded for his own Razor & Tie label, including Miracle of Science (1995), and #447 (1999). There are simply too many impressive tracks to receive the proper attention here that they deserve, ranging from the slaphappy romps of “Wild Abandon” on Mary Jean and 9 Others, and “Fantastic Planet of Love” on Life’s Too Short, to melancholy break-up songs — including what is one of his most remarkable compositions, “Walkin’ Around,” also found on Life’s Too Short.
The scenario of this song presents Crenshaw-as-protagonist after an all-night argument with his girl. Emotionally exhausted, he suggests that they just go out and walk — not to continue the fight, but just to walk around the city, before determining if their relationship has come to an end or not. While we usually expect most songs like this to have a resolution some sort — ending with a break-up, or reconciliation, or declaration of undying love— here we witness a moment when it’s all suddenly hanging by a thread, with the ending yet to be determined. The deceptively upbeat tempo creates a stark contrast to the emotional dilemma the lovers are experiencing. And the word pictures Crenshaw creates throughout are masterful.
But good old-fashioned love songs have always remained part of his repertoire. The wonderful “Starless Summer Sky,” a song he co-wrote back in 1979 but didn’t record until Miracle of Science in ’95, is one of his personal favorites.
He has also released several compilations and live albums. The excellent “best of” compilation release in 2000, This Is Easy, is probably the most convenient way to hear a well-chosen sampling of twenty-two of his finest and most popular songs.
The new milennium also brought the studio releases What’s in the Bag? (2003) and Jaggedland (2009). In 2015, Crenshaw released a collection of the EPs he had made between 2013 and 2015 (a form popularlized in the 1960s as 45 singles that contained three or four songs instead of just one on each side), after his decision to cease recording full-length albums.
Today, he and his wife Ione live in Rhinebeck, New York (not far from Woodstock), where they’ve lived since 1987; He still performs about 50 gigs a year in smaller venues, mostly in the northeast, and often as a guest performer with bands such as The Smithereens — perhaps just to let us know that his genius is still alive and kicking.
And, who knows, perhaps none of this would have been possible without that brilliant first album forty years ago, establishing the identity of a musician and songwriter who will likely never truly receive the admiration he deserves for such an enjoyable catalogue of intelligent, rocking music.
Until next time…
If you’ve enjoyed this article, please click the “follow” button and follow me on Medium (no charge) for more articles on popular culture, music, films, television, entertainment history, and just plain old history.
My other articles related to pop/rock music include:
Retro Review: In Praise of the Bangles https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-in-praise-of-the-bangles-7110c0c79b49
Retro Review: The Cardigans https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-the-cardigans-ca1e8e5f05f1
Retro Review: Donald Fagan’s “The Nightfly” https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-donald-fagans-the-nightfly-6af34cafc87d
Two Classic Albums: “Layla” and “All Things Must Pass” at 50 https://garryberman.medium.com/two-classic-albums-layla-and-all-things-must-pass-at-50-1d4b8ef9e4c6
Retro Review: Renaissance (the band) https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-renaissance-the-band-b497319a84fc
You can also become a member in the Medium Partner Program for a modest fee to help support my writing. https://garryberman.medium.com/membership
Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books, and order them via the links to Amazon.com.