Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper was born June 22, 1953 in Queens, New York. She grew up listening to many female jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. Encouraged by her mother to embrace her creativity, Cyndi started playing guitar and writing songs at the age of 12. She went to a high school for students of visual arts, but she felt it wasn’t what she wanted to study and she dropped out at the age of 17.
In her early 20’s, Cyndi started playing in various New York area rock cover bands. In 1977, she injured her vocal chords to the point that doctors told her she’d never sing again. With the help of a vocal coach, and a year off from music, Lauper was able to get her voice back to 100%.
Her manager introduced her to saxophone player John Turi, and the two began writing songs together and decided to form a band. They added three more members and began playing a rockabilly-new wave hybrid. They named the band Blue Angel.
They recorded some demo tapes and sent them to several people in the music industry. Steve Massarsky, the manager of The Allman Brothers Band, heard the tapes and hated the music, but loved Cyndi’s voice. Both he and record companies wanted to sign Lauper but not the band. Lauper would not sign unless the whole band was signed. Massarsky signed the band and got them a deal with Polydor records.
Blue Angel released their self titled first album in 1980.
The album did not sell well in America, but it did have some success in Europe. It was not reviewed by many critics, but those that did review it liked it.
I listened to the album, and I have to agree with the record execs, Cyndi’s singing is good, but the music is all over the map. It’s not horrible, but it is not the quality of music that she would later create.
Blue Angel continued playing around the New York area throughout 1980-81. They returned to the studio to record a sophomore album, but after it was completed, Polydor changed management and dropped the band from the label, never releasing the album. The band started to break apart, especially after their manager, Massarsky, sued the band for breach of contract.
Lauper began performing solo in clubs and bars around New York, while working in a thrift shop to make ends meet. She met David Wolff while performing in a Japanese restaurant.
Wolff was working as manager for the band Arc Angel, and he was blown away by Lauper’s voice. Arc Angel was already signed to Portrait Records, a subsidiary label of Epic Records. He felt with his connections he could get Lauper signed to Portrait if she would take him on as her manager. Cyndi agreed, and not only did Wolff become her manager, but her boyfriend for the next 7 years.
Wolff came through and got Lauper signed to Portrait Records in late 1982. Lauper went to The Record Plant in New York City to begin recording her debut album during the summer of 1983. The album would be produced by long time A&R man, and Clive Davis acolyte, Rick Chertoff, who had produced some late 70’s albums by The Kinks and The Alan Parsons Project.
The Album Cover:
The album cover was designed by Cyndi and the photos were taken by legendary music photographer, Annie Liebovitz. The front cover shows Cyndi in mid dance, barefoot on the boardwalk at Coney Island. The building that she is in front of is the World In Wax Musee, although it had been closed for some time, which explains why they are advertising a Roberto Clemente figure in 1983.
Cyndi bought the prom dress she is wearing from the thrift shop she worked at. The flowers she is holding she bought from a vendor on Coney Island just moments before. The umbrella is a remnant of Cyndi and Liebovitz taking pictures on the Coney Island beach all day.
The idea of the title came from a 1920’s song that Cyndi covers on the album, “He’s So Unusual” only changing the gender. It was all part of their desire to market Cyndi as an unusual, quirky person. This would translate once her music videos started hitting MTV. While her style was her style, there definitely was a concerted effort to push her style as a gimmick to promote her career.
The back shows the Coney Island parachute ride in the background. With a pair of feet, presumably Cyndi’s, wearing yellow socks and dress shoes with the heels broken off and the bottoms painted to look like Van Gough’s Starry Night in the foreground.
The innersleeve has the lyrics on one side and a picture of a wall from what appears to be a rundown building with the lyrics to “Time After Time” superimposed in faux-handwritten text. The album credits are printed at the bottom. The oddest credit: Hair design: Justin Ware and Ralph Scibelli. Do they mean her hair on the cover? Her hair in the studio while she was recording the album? Did it really take two people to do it?
I am reviewing the vinyl LP release of She’s So Unusual released on Portrait in 1983.
(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs. As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)
The album opens with “Money Changes Everything.” A cover of a 1978 song by punk band The Brains. It has a cool synthesizer part and an odd harmonica breakdown section which gives it a little of a John Mellencamp vibe.
It is a great opening track and of course that means: the awesome opening track streak continues!
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” has to be one of the most played songs of the last 30 years, so what is there to be said about it? How ’bout that it was written by a man, Robert Hazard, who recorded it himself in 1979, singing it from a man’s point of view. He changed the lyrics for Cyndi to record it. I will say one thing about the track, hearing it on vinyl for the first time makes it sound much better, there is much better separation of the instruments. It’s a classic pop anthem, and the music video probably defines the 1980’s better than anything this side of Back to the Future and Reaganomics.
“When You Were Mine” is a cover a Prince song from 1980’s Dirty Mind.
It takes a lot of bite out of the Prince version, even though it sounds very similar. I do like the synthesizer floating in and out. It is okay, but not terribly interesting on the whole.
Closing out side one, “Time After Time” is another track like “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” which has been played so many times you begin to ignore it. It is a beautiful song, and Cyndi gives her best vocals so far here. Again, listening to this on vinyl I noticed the bass synth sound more than I ever had. I can’t deny it, it’s a great song. This is her first original track on the album as she co-wrote the track with Rob Hyman of the band The Hooters, who is also the guy singing backing vocals.
Side two opens with “She Bop,” the song that caused the 10-year-old girls of 1983 to dance around the house, with their Walkman and headphones, and unwittingly sing about female masturbation. Sure, the lyrics are a little dopey and inconsequential, but that describes almost all of pop music. Yeah, its silly, but I like it.
“All Through The Night” is another synthesized pop ballad. It has a nice, almost prog rock breakdown in the middle. It’s nothing offensive, in fact its kinda sweet.
“Witness” has a co-writing credit to her old bandmate in Blue Angel, John Turi, so I assume that this track was written for that band. It has semi Police faux-reggae vibe to it. This the first track I don’t like.
“I’ll Kiss You” is a very “of it’s time period” song, something like this couldn’t exist outside of the early 80’s. Her vocals are kind of goofy here. Whomever plays the synth on this track is the best part. Actually, I would give props to whomever played synth on every track on this album, but I don’t know who played what since 3 different guys are listed as having played on the album. The song is kind of dumb, and it’s definitely not my favorite track.
A 45 second interlude “He’s So Unusual” which is a 1920’s song. It is recorded to sound like a vintage 1920’s recording with Cyndi doing a Betty Boop impersonation. Kinda neat.
That transitions into the album’s end on “Yeah, Yeah” which sounds like Yoko Ono for a second at the beginning. It is actually kind of a rocking, new wave track. The Betty Boop character keeps popping up here and there in the background of this song. A good way to end the album, with it rocking a bit.
Is the album mostly fluff? Yeah, for the most part. But Pop music is sometimes at its best when it is very fluffy. The mega-hits off this album have dulled it as a complete album, but without those hits it would be something completely forgotten. Still, this isn’t trying to be Dark Side of the Moon. It is trying to be a hit album for the then new MTV generation. And on that it account it succeeded mightily.
The five singles released off the album all made the top 30. “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” was released before the album, and reached #2 on the Billboard chart, eventually selling 2 million copies itself. “Time After Time” became Cyndi’s first #1 single. “She Bop” reached #3 and “All Through The Night” made it to #5. The lowest charting single off the album was “Money Changes Everything” which “only” made it to #27.
Due to the advance popularity of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” She’s So Unusual debuted on the Billboard Album Chart at #4. The album stayed on the chart for 77 weeks and sold over 16 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time.
So much of the success of both the singles and album was the constant airplay of Lauper’s music videos on MTV.
Her style made her an immediate fashion icon and changed the way girls dressed overnight. She won the first ever best female video at the MTV Video Music Awards and also led everyone that year with 10 nominations. She then was nominated for 6 Grammys in 1984, winning two: Best New Artist and Best Album Packaging.
She had her fifth top 10 single with “Goonies R Good Enough” from the soundtrack to the film, The Goonies.
Cyndi began involving herself in the world of pro wrestling, and lent her name to help Vince McMahon’s WWF skyrocket to its biggest success. Starting with an MTV special, Lauper became part of the Rock n’ Wrestling connection, becoming the manager for Women’s wrestling champion Wendi Richter. She even allowed herself to be kicked in the head by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. All of this led to the first ever Wrestlemania, along with the Hulk Hogan/Mr.T tag team main event, Cyndi’s involvement was one of the most hyped parts of the card.
It took her three years to release a sophomore album. True Colors spawned her second #1 hit with the title track and two other top 20 hits.
It got good reviews and went double platinum. It wasn’t the huge success that She’s So Unusual had been, but what is?
She turned to acting in 1988 co-starring in the poorly received Jeff Goldblum vehicle, Vibes.
Her third album, 1989’s A Night To Remember was not the success that her first two albums had been, just barely going gold and only spawning one hit song “I Drove All Night.”
Throughout the 1990’s Lauper continued to record albums and act occasionally. In 1995, she won an Emmy for her guest role on Mad About You.
Her career slowed after the birth of her son in 1997. However, she has maintained her reputation as one of the most important female artists of the last 30 years.
Much of her time in recent years has been as an activist for the LGBT community, starting her own charity, The True Colors Fund.
Her most recent album, Memphis Blues debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues album chart. She also received a Grammy Nomination in 2011 for best traditional blues album.
Her most recent work was composing the music for the Broadway musical Kinky Boots which just recently opened in April of 2013. She is currently nominated for the Best Musical Score Tony, which means if she wins she will be only an Oscar away from winning the coveted EGOT.
My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:
RS: “Lauper’s first band had broken up and she was singing in a Japanese restaurant. Then this solo debut album of razor-sharp dance pop became the first by a female performer to score four Top Five hits, including “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time After Time.”
Ya know, I’ve never thought of this as dance-pop. I guess it is, but can you dance to “Time After Time?”
Overall, this is a good album. It hits its mark, while it may not have aimed too high, it still does what it sets out to do. Not everything is great on this album, but it is an important album due to it’s hits, which are all fantastically crafted pop songs.
3.5 Stars out of 5, recommended with some reservations
My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:
1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses
2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
3. KISS- Destroyer
4. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters
5. ZZ Top- Tres Hombres
6. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up
7. Outkast- Aquemini
8. Hüsker Dü- New Day Rising
9. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign
10. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs
11. Public Enemy- Yo! Bum Rush The Show
12. Cyndi Lauper- She’s So Unusual
13. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!
14. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail
15. Eurythmics- Touch