Joni Mitchell’s Weird and Wonderful ‘80s Music

joni mitchell

Joni Mitchell continues to inspire generations of musicians, many of whom came out to honor the singer/songwriter for Joni Mitchell 75: A Birthday Celebration. The tribute concert, which spawned a documentary and an album, features Brandi Carlile, Graham Nash, Rufus Wainwright, James Taylor, and more performers covering songs from Mitchell’s vast catalog. Among the selections include classics like “Court and Spark” and “Woodstock,” as well as lesser-known tracks like Los Lobos’ take on “Nothing Can Be Done” from Mitchell’s 1991 album Night Ride Home.

One era sadly overlooked in the birthday celebration is the music Mitchell made during the 1980s. Which is a shame, as her three albums from the Reagan decade — Wild Things Run Fast (1982), Dog Eat Dog (1985), and Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm (1988) — include some of Mitchell’s most unique and outside-the-box songwriting. With her lilting soprano now deepened into a husky alto (possibly by years of smoking — one track on Dog Eat Dog samples the sounds of a cigarette machine), Mitchell broadened her sonic palette to include synths and world music flavors and welcomed a variety of collaborators like Thomas Dolby, Willie Nelson, and Peter Gabriel. Lyrically the songs tackle more ’80s buzzwords (televangelists, consumerism, Ethiopia) than an episode of Donahue, and demonstrate how the politically-minded songwriter felt out of touch with the decade’s growing conservatism.

While some critics and fans of Mitchell’s folk and jazz output balked at the singer/songwriter adopting the sounds of the Rubik’s Cube era, the result is some of her densest and most challenging music. Digging beneath easy nostalgia, Mitchell’s lyrical concerns (environmentalism, the religious right, corporate hucksters) feel newly relevant. Looking to dive into this overlooked span in Joni Mitchell’s career? Spin the tunes below.

“You Dream Flat Tires”

1982’s Wild Things Run Fast marked Mitchell’s return to a folk-rock sound following a jazz-inflected period that ran from 1976’s Hejira to her 1979 collaboration with Charlie Mingus. Inspired by the eclectic sound of bands like The Police and Steely Dan, Mitchell rediscovered her pop/folk roots with an album that melded personal lyrics with music that peppered in Caribbean, rock, and disco rhythms. The result is some of her warmest music from the ‘80s, like the fan-favorite “Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody” and the Tropicália-inspired “You Dream Flat Tires,” featuring Lionel Richie on back-up vocals and a killer bassline from co-producer/husband Larry Klein.

Related: “Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira’: An Underappreciated Masterpiece”

“Good Friends”

Joni fully embraced the sounds of the mid-‘80s with the Dog Eat Dog album, enlisting synth master Thomas Dolby of “She Blinded Me With Science” fame to provide keys, programming, and spoken word parts. Don Henley and James Taylor offer some ‘70s Cali vibes on background vocals, but the biggest vocal contribution is Michael McDonald’s smooth-as-molasses duet with Joni on the track “Good Friends.” The duo’s voices meld perfectly, channeling some “downtown atmosphere” for a slice of tasty sophisti-pop. Fans of McDonald’s signature blue-eyed soul need to hear the Doobie Brothers’ frontman crooning the line “Oooh…swappin’ stories!”

“My Secret Place”

Joni teamed up with Peter Gabriel for this ode to the beginning of a new relationship, and the result is a gorgeous musical conversation between two legends. Recorded in the same studio where Peter Gabriel made his groundbreaking album So, “My Secret Place” conjures the melancholy mood of Gabriel tunes like “Don’t Give Up” and “In Your Eyes.” The track kicks off Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, Mitchell’s 1988 album that’s stocked with guest stars like Benjamin Orr from The Cars, Wendy & Lisa, Don Henley, and the oddball pairing of Tom Petty and Billy Idol.

“Dancin’ Clown”

Speaking of Petty and Idol, if you’ve ever wondered what they’d sound like trading off verses with Joni Mitchell on a bouncy folk-rock song, then look no further than “Dancin’ Clown.” Mitchell asked Idol to duet on the track after seeing the rocker perform “To Be a Lover” on the Grammys. Idol’s signature howl pairs surprisingly well with Petty, adding some edge and tension to a track that could’ve been a throwaway trifle.

Related: “How ‘Girls’ Helped Me Rediscover Joni Mitchell”

“Snakes and Ladders”

Don Henley joins Joni for this duet about a pair of upwardly mobile young yuppies in love. Mitchell sings about the “perfect airbrushed angel” in a world of social graces and “privileged chatter,” while Henley paints a portrait of the guy on a “corporate climb” who “gave up happy hour for her.” While the lyrics are ostensibly a condemnation of the shiny happy people of the go-go ‘80s (complete with references to car phones and “young-fogie financiers”), the windy groove, twinkling keys, and chiming guitars would’ve been the perfect accompaniment to a late-period Brat Pack flick.

-Nick Nadel

Photo Credit: Joni Mitchell  (Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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2 comments on “Joni Mitchell’s Weird and Wonderful ‘80s Music

  1. Thanks for posting these videos! As a huge JM fan I thought I had seen everything on Joni so these were a wonderful surprise. Regarding the 75th Anniversary Film/Concert: What a disappointment. Many of the performances were subpar albeit with some wonderful exceptions (Norah!). Rufus W. made a fool of himself (again) as his bloated ego and awful voice always seem to overshadow everything he’s involved in. This production (produced by his friend) was at best: nepotism at its worst. My advice: don’t pay good $ to see it as it’ll be on some cable channel soon enough. Joni deserved so much more than this on her 75th! Love CultureSonar!

  2. Great post!

    It’s a mark of Joni’s genius that even her ‘lesser’ works tower over most other popular music. Her persona and spirit shine through the glossy ‘80s surface-effects.

    I have all her albums up to… ummm (checks Wiki Joni Discog) … Night Ride Home. And after that (rather as with the most ‘recent’ Tom Waits stuff) I no longer felt compelled to follow her. That’s probably a mistake on my part. To be corrected soon!

    But currently I’m more into the Joni Mitchell Archives releases of her earliest stuff, and the remasters from her ‘purple patch’: Seagull through to… Mingus, maybe?

    This list of yours makes me want to dig out those 80s albums, which I only have on vinyl or cassette, and haven’t listened to in years. At the time I got them, Wild Things Run Fast really disappointed me. Whereas, despite the ‘80s graphics and sonic aesthetics, I actually really dug Dog Eat Dog, albeit not tithe sane degree as her 60s/70s stuff.

    Chalk Mark remains one I have (Wild and Dog I have on vinyl, Chalk as a cassette!) never really listened to properly. Ditto Night Ride. It’s funny, as I love Mike McDonald. But I’d forgotten that he duetted with Joni. Two of my heroes singing together. Fab!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights.
    Cheers, Seb

    PS – Have a look at my blog. I’ve posted a series of pieces on Joni, amongst others.

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