Heavy Rotation is a column focused on an LP in my collection. This month I’m discussing Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual, Epic/Sony, CBS Inc. Portrait – 25-3P-486A1/B1, w/blue obi strip, 1st Japanese pressing.
In 1984 Cyndi Lauper achieved what Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith before her had not: she became the first female artist to chart four Top 5 singles off one album. A heady space to occupy considering the size of the craters that musical heavyweights Tapestry, Blue and Horses had left on the industry the previous decade. Seven Grammy nominations and two Grammy Awards in 1985 for She's So Unusual secured the album’s status, but would prove to be a bar too high for Lauper to reach again, despite several successful follow-ups.
Like many critically acclaimed albums, the road to its recording, recognition and success was not an easy one. She’s So Unusual was released on October 14, 1983 by a then 30-year-old Lauper who, three years earlier had been wondering if she’d ever return to singing following a series of setbacks that saw her waiting tables at IHOP to make ends meet. In 1980, recovering from vocal cord surgery that left her career in doubt, she was reckoning with the break up of her band and an $80,000 lawsuit filed by a disgruntled manager that forced her into personal bankruptcy. As her voice slowly came back, she started gigging again in local New York clubs where A&R scouts noticed her four-octave singing range. It was in one of these clubs where Lauper and David Wolff crossed paths, with Wolff taking over as her manager and securing a recording contract with Portrait Records, a subsidiary of Epic.
Recording took place through spring and summer of 1983 at New York’s Record Plant with parent company Epic annointing Rick Chertoff as Lauper’s producer for the album. Lauper was backed by Chertoff and musicians he had recently worked with including Eric Bazilian, Rob Hyman, Richard Termini and Peter Wood. It's been reported that in the studio Lauper was clear on the direction she wanted for the album, but initially had her vision rebuffed. She was asked to front songs she wanted nothing to do with and was left feeling disheartened before Chertoff, the musicians and she were able to come to an amicable impasse and start laying tracks to tape. Three songs were cut in relatively quick succession; “When You Were Mine,” “Money Changes Everything” and “All Through The Night.”
It’s testament to Lauper’s belief in herself that she was able to meet the push back head-on and come through with her singular creative voice unblemished, which becomes apparent when examining her songwriting abilities and how she was able to take other’s work and make it uniquely her own. While there are a number of original compositions on the LP (“Time After Time,” cowritten by Lauper and Hyman, “She Bop,” with Chertoff and Gary Corbett, “Witness,” with John Turi and “I’ll Kiss You,” on which Lauper teamed-up with Jules Shear), there are also several covers that had their lyrics or scores altered to fit her interpretation. These included “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” and “All Through The Night” two of the four Top 5 singles off the album. Regardless of who was writing what, Lauper’s peerless pitch and vocal range coupled with her explosive delivery defines the album.
"I flipped the album three or four times – listening the whole way through sitting cross-legged on the floor – before anyone else in the house stirred and broke my reverie unravelling its pop gestalt."
I first heard the album when I was 12, listening on oversized headphones while visiting an uncle’s house on holiday. The sun was just breaching the window-sill threshold and though the rest of the family happily slept, I was quietly spinning records in the living room. It was the fall of ’83, I had slid She’s So Unusual from between a couple hundred LPs lining the shelves and cued it up on the turntable. Bulky vintage cans plugged into a brushed metal and wood-trimmed receiver, I flipped the album three or four times – listening the whole way through sitting cross-legged on the floor – before anyone else in the house stirred and broke my reverie unravelling its pop gestalt. I’ve never forgotten those first hours with Lauper, so it’s no surprise I’ve had an EX+ original Canadian pressing which I’ve enjoyed for many years (Portrait – FR 38930, CBS Records, lacquer cut/pressed at Columbia Records Pressing Plant, Don Mills, ON). But, having acquired a NM original Japanese pressing, which is superior in every respect to the Columbia one – dynamics, imaging, timbre, tone, lack of any groove noise – it’s now the focus of this instalment. This situation – of superior Japanese pressings – is an ongoing one, as every Japanese pressing in my collection has so far put North American ones to shame. This in turn places my bank account in mortal danger.
“Money Changes Everything” opens the album, and while Lauper didn’t necessarily rework Tom Gray’s gritty, 1978 new wave/rocker – which in itself is an underground classic – the kickstart she gave it rocketed the song from 7-inch teen gasper to full-throated power-pop roar. Her treatment prompted music critic Greil Marcus to write at the time, “Cyndi Lauper's version makes the original sound compromised. She makes you wonder if Brains composer and singer Tom Gray even knew what he was talking about.” The weight of Rob Hyman’s sustained synthesizer notes open the LP as hard as Anton Fig’s kick drum and snare, which immediately precipitate speaker excursion and room pressurization. The muscular thrumming of Neil Jason’s deep chords on electric bass hooks you in, yoking the entire track to it. The tonal purity and resolution offered forth by Lauper’s four-octave range adds to the Clash-like assault of electric texture from Bazilian’s guitar. Sound staging is wide and loosely centered with the bulk of the vocals and instruments floating holographically between the speakers in a large sphere. It plays tight, as stripped-down new-wave pop should (the whole LP is nothing if not propellant, with dizzying leading edges to transients), but there is a dense, thematic vein running through “Money” with ambitious layers of keyboard, synth, bass and percussion not only supporting Lauper’s vocal harmonies but also her effortless, extended, pitch-perfect solos.
Rewritten from a woman’s point of view, re-arranged to take advantage of talented session musicians, backup singers and studio electronics, Lauper’s cover of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” turned Robert Hazard’s 1979 post-punk demo about coreced female promiscuity on its head, becoming instead, the perfect pop declaration for girl power. While Hazard’s original is unpolished and rough, it is driven with the raucous energy of the late ’70s punk movement. Given the lyrics it’s understandable that Lauper would chafe at producer Chertoff’s push to cover it, but can you imagine if she hadn’t? The decade would have been musically incomplete. From the moment the hurdy-gurdy keyboard flourish, percussion and bass line drops, the song rebels with the staccato pop-rock abandon of Rick DiFonzo’s lead guitar. The sense of Lauper leaning into the track is palpable, never back on her heels, she’s out swinging over the rhythmic drive and weight of the recording. Keyboards and skins in particular relentlessly daring the listener to deny the fine textural resolution of the detail-oriented mastering. Irreverent, culturally conscious and laced with an addictive chorus that resonates as loudly today as it did 37 years ago, “Girls” was another defining anti-establishment anthem of the ‘80s, which was a highly conservative time in the United States, Britain, Europe and Japan. Reagan and Thatcher were in power and their agendas weren’t affiliated with expanding the rights of women or LBGTQ+ individuals. This was a time when one had to be loud and smart to be heard above the din, traits Lauper deftly intertwined with her lyrical and songwriting abilities.
According to press reports at the time, Lauper’s performance of “When You Were Mine” at the ’85 American Music Awards saw Prince approve of her up-tempo, more pure-pop treatment of his John Lennon-inspired original, penned in 1980. Wistful, analogous of the emotional weight inherent to memory, “Mine” launches into that most human of mental states: regret. Minor chord arrangements of guitar, synth/keyboard and bass all conspire to tug at heartstrings despite the buoyant percussive work on drums by Fig anchoring the track. DiFonzo’s exquisitely reverbed and pitch-bending lead guitar riffs add to the tonality skewing blue. Overdubs of Lauper along with backing vocals contributed by Ellie Greenwich, Krystal Davis, Diane Wilson and Maretha Stewart add disconsolate timbral colour and can easily be delineated from one another in the mix thanks to exceptional track separation to the vocals in the mastering.
Wrapping the first side of the LP, “Time After Time” keeps the minor-chord feeling and is likely Lauper’s most personal writing contribution to the album as it reflects on her relationship at the time coming apart. It’s said she and Hyman sat at a piano in the studio and wrote it together, commiserating about their mutual break-ups. The clarity of the loose-tuned guitar strums that DiFonzo has laid down on the cut sparkles on this pressing, with far more tonal and timbral density and shading to its colour than off the Canadian-lacquer version. Ditto to the air and space around rim shots, and cymbal decay which have far more metallic resolution to their sheen. Scale is another standout property to the Japanese pressing, while the Don Mills lacquer itself doesn’t necessarily lack a sense of the recorded space, it seems small, and spatially flattened in the z-axis when compared back-to-back to the Tokyo Plant version. Most of all, it’s the living presence which the Japanese pressing imbues to playback. The dynamic range seems much more open at both ends of the frequency spectrum, with the Canadian original feeling compressed at both bass and treble extremes.
Side two opens up with “She Bop,” a sub four-minute, radio friendly, dance-floor rocker and Lauper’s cheeky ode to female masturbation. The dominant new wave electric bassline lets complex synth riffs and sustained keyboard noodling reminiscent at times of a concertina float on top with Lauper’s vocals ethereally rising above the whole mix like smooth whipped creme. “All Through The Night” is another cover, this time of folk singer Jules Shear and gets a sparkly synth makeover, arranged as pop-ballad perfection which Shear enjoyed so much that she offered backing vocals to Lauper on the recording session. “Witness” and “I’ll Kiss You” follow with detours through ska-influenced reggae and straight-up British synth-pop. “He’s So Unusual” is a vintage sonic morsel and at only 46 seconds, splashes in the shallow end artistically with its tongue-in-cheek nod to screen stars of the ‘20s and ‘30s that Lauper would parrot during bar-hopping nights with the band during recording.
Closing the album with one last cover, replete with some Yoko Ono-inspired falsetto wailing, “Yeah Yeah” deviates from Swede Mikael Rickfors original driving-pop effort – a 1981 single off his album Tender Turns Tuff. It’s an inspiring pastiche of experimental new wave/pop keyboards, male supporting vocal harmonies, and brassy horn jazz-infused solos all underpinned with a metronomic drum effort moving the cacaphony forward. In a way, it’s a fitting ending to the almost exhaustive emotional binary of the album as a whole, which is impossible to relegate to background listening: it’s simply too engrossing. An LP, which despite approaching the four-decade mark, still sounds fresh – even with the added poignancy that accompanies the realization that you’ve aged less gracefully than the music. It’s an album that helped to musically, culturally, and cerebrally define and influence not only the birth and maturation of ’80s pop, but also take on the conservative values of the decade. Values that triggered a seismic shift in the political landscape of the decades which followed. By any account, you couldn’t have had the ‘80s as it was without Cyndi Lauper and She’s So Unusual, and listening to it in 2021, any record collection reflecting that era’s key contributions would be remiss without it.
Japanese 1st pressings of the LP can be found HERE.