Hilly Michaels: 'Calling All Girls' (1980)

Rediscovering lost music via the vinyl bins at secondhand stores

Album: Calling All Girls

Artist: Hilly Michaels

Price/Place: $1.21, Broadway Street Goodwill

Twenty years ago Pearl Jam released Ten and Nirvana released Nevermind. I've read quite a few overwrought commentaries lately that predictably and lamely have asserted that these records "changed everything." Of course this is wrong. As great as Nirvana was, the Meat Puppets and the Melvins were doing something similar for a decade before Nevermind, and Eddie Vedder himself admits he's a lot like Neil Young. These are not insults. Rock and roll has always been syncretic, and its best performers have always been appropriators as well as innovators.

Nevermind and Ten are unassailable. But the dark side of grunge is too obvious to ignore. And I'm not just talking about the grunge-spawned abominations that are Scott Stapp and Nickelback. Rather, I'm talking about the recession of puerility and silliness in rock 'n' roll.

Rock 'n' roll has never been particularly silly, and grunge made things worse. This is somewhat puzzling given that other musical genres have pretty high silliness quotients. Over the years, for example, I've heard lots of goofy but respectable rap songs, from the "Humpty Dance" to "Chain Hang Low." And I can think of lots of silly country songs, including the relatively recent "I Want to Talk About Me," and "Brown Chicken, Brown Cow," which are genuinely funny. Unfortunately, when rock 'n' rollers try to be silly it often comes off as creepy or just plain stupid. For example, Chuck Berry's "My Ding-a-Ling" almost makes you forget that the man invented huge chunks of rock 'n' roll, and Aerosmith's "Big Ten Inch Record" is more pathetic than funny.

Hilly Michaels, whose 1980 album Calling All Girls I found at the Broadway Salvation Army, is the anti-Cobain. The album cover shows Michaels relaxing in a lounge chair and speaking on a pink telephone. Kurt Cobain sure as hell never reclined (outside) on a lounge chair or spoke into a pink telephone. The music is much like the cover—fun, ebullient, and relentlessly agreeable. The band is an all-star group including Cars' keyboardist Greg Hawkes and Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone. Female background vocalists, who work en masse at key junctures in many of the songs, include rock goddess Ellen Foley and (for some reason) Liza Minelli. Michaels puts together several excellent three-minute pop songs, including the title track and "Shake It and Dance." Both are piano-centric but muscular power pop-cum-bubblegum. Roy Thomas Baker, most famous for his work with the Cars, produced the album. Michaels does not sing about abuse victims or opioid drugs, and no specific insects or vermin are name-checked in his lyrics. All of the songs are about girls (preferably attractive ones, though Hilly makes it pretty clear he doesn't discriminate) and how Michaels wants to meet them.

This is a flat-out fabulous record from start to finish. Sometimes rock 'n' roll is supposed to be fun.