Cyndi Lauper's Debut Sounding Better Than Ever on Mobile Fidelity's Reissue

Like Marshall Crenshaw’s debut, Cyndi Lauper’s first album would be difficult to top and neither she nor Crenshaw managed to do it. Better to peak early than not peak at all—not that either of them didn’t release some very good follow-ups.

Last year Lauper’s score for the Broadway hit “Kinky Boots” earned thirteen Tony nominations and won six including “best musical” so she’s not in need of looking back. The Mobile Fidelity reissue of She’s So Unusual obligates me to though. .

First released in 1983 on Epic records subsidiary Portrait, She’s So Unusual epitomized the then flourishing “New Wave” scene musically, sonically and visually. The music was exuberant carousel synth-splashed confection on the surface with some thoughtful and even controversial lyrics embedded within. The sound was bright, Aphex Aural Excited (or some other kind of etchy studio processing) and the colorful jacket artwork and Lauper’s hybrid punk/disco look were perfect for the then still-budding opportunities offered by MTV and music videos.

The project itself well-reflected the state of the record business that had exploded in the early ‘70s, rode the era’s fading hippie singer/songwriter wave, then androgynous glam rock and by the end of the decade the punk scene that while not commercially significant ushered in electronica-driven “New Wave” that produced both a creative shot in the business’s arm (and lotsa powder in the nose) and continued good economic times.

This was still a time of record label concentric projects overseen by staff A&R men, with assistance from artist’s managers, lawyers in love, independent and label publicists and the rest of what still was a thriving scene filled with key players and corrosive peripheral “hanger oners” alike. The label spent well on Annie Leibovitz's front and back cover photography, creating a tough, street-wise punk-glam persona for Lauper on the jacket front at a time when images were easier to manage than now and an indelible back cover image that juxtaposes Van Gogh and Coney Island's parachute jump (originally built for New York's 1939 World's Fair).

Producer and A&R man Rick Chertoff schooled at Arista Records by legendary producer Clive Davis brought song picking and sequencing savvy to Lauper’s short debut, stringing together a short first side that awed critics and fans alike.

The album opens with a prelude: a cover of Atlanta, Georgia-based The Brains’ obscure 1978 single “Money Changes Everything” written by band leader Tom Gray, which was re-recorded by the group for its Mercury Records debut in 1980 that fared no better.

Chertoff and Lauper unlocked the song’s dark power with an instrumental bed almost mixed in mono that could have been swiped from the first Cars album releases five years earlier. The song unfolds against a plodding David Robinson like beat with Hooter Rob Hyman’s Hohner Melodica filling in for Greg Hawkes’ synthesizer.

While the song, released as the album’s fifth single, reached only #27 on the Billboard charts, the album sold more than nine million copies, surely moving plenty of money Gray’s way and probably changing “everything” in his life, thanks to Chertoff’s smart A&R choice. The darkness gives way to a splashy, panned arpeggiated synthesizer flourish introducing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, which quickly became the era’s female anthem, casting off forever dour 60’s era “earth mother” feminism in favor of a freer set of options.

Third up was a cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” with its sexually ambiguous lyrics that Lauper left untouched with lines like “Oh girl, when u were mine/ I use to let u wear all my clothes” and “When he was there/ Sleepin in between the two of us/I know, that you’re goin with another guy” that led some to hear either lesbian or gay themes or both.

The side ends with the sublime “Time After Time” written by Lauper and Rob Hyman that was later covered by Miles Davis. The first play left critics and fans stunned and it was the album’s most successful single.

Turning the record over revealed first “She Bop” a song about female masturbation (unless you think the line “I wanna go south n get me some more” is about pecans) that at the time was controversial. It reached number three on the Billboard charts, made the Parents Music Resource Center’s “Filthy Fifteen” list and helped usher in the Parental advisory sticker. The lyrics were controversial but the melody bordered on trite and the production lacked the previous side’s meticulousness.

From here the production gets less and less interesting and more and more slapdash and the songs, other than Jules Shear’s gorgeous “All Through the Night”, less inspired, as if everyone involved ran out of creative gas (or coke). There’s a clichéd reggae number, and two anti-climactic album closers with a brief interesting faux vintage 78rpm single interlude wherein Lauper pays tribute to Helen Kane, (whose vocalizing influenced Lauper’s) singing a bit of her 1929 hit “He’s So Unusual.” Kane in turn is often credited for being the inspiration for Max Fleischer’s cartoon creation Betty Boop.

Despite the second side quality drop, She’s Son Unusual remains a landmark album in many ways, from Lauper’s powerful vocalizing that unfortunately gets somewhat diluted by the period piece processing, to side one’s arranging genius and especially for the songwriting, whether drawn from outside sources or written by Lauper with some help from her friends.

I compared this Mo-Fi “silver series” reissue (meaning the original master tape couldn’t be found or as in the case of Mo-Fi’s Stevie Wonder reissues, was not made available to the label so copies were used) to an early pressing and to a Japanese original pressing.

The first conclusion I reached was that at the time of this release most Japanese mastering suites had replaced preview heads with low bit rate digital delay lines. I think so because this album, XTC’s Big Express and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks all sound positively awful on Japanese original pressings—like really bad CDs. Everything is mushed together, flattened and harmonically bleached.

The early pressing is very good—and perhaps a first pressing is even better—but Mobile Fidelity has done a superb job here, revealing a lot interesting detail, promoting three dimensionality and warmth without covering up the embedded processing. Lauper’s voice has never sounded more intact, with the processing seeming to ride well on top of her voice, instead of hopelessly polluting it. Clarity, dynamics, instrumental separation, every aspect of the production has been spruced up without making it sound like an unwanted historical revision. Mo-fi ads value with a gatefold "Tip On" jacket that puts the original's inner sleeve on the gatefold innards.

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andyo5's picture

After reading your reviews of new releases, I am often inspired to dig out my copy (usually the original) for a listen. In this case, my rarely listened-to original release of this album found its way onto the turntable. I had forgotten how much I like this LP and how good it sounds. I have become more interested in jazz and classical music as I have aged. I just find that they sound better and are more fun to listen to. But this album has a tight, well defined, no BS sound that I wish was more common in rock and pop. Thanks for reminding me of it.