Mixed-Up Kids: Times Square at 40

Looking back at the quintessential rock ‘n’ rebel experience of 1980

Times Square DVD poster (1980)

“A new iconoclast has come to save us!,” Johnny LaGuardia, a disc jockey at WJAD radio, tells his listeners.

For he has discovered a teenaged girl, a tough-talking misfit railing against the hypocrisy of society and, in particular, adults, who is going to rescue New York City from “apathy, banality, boredom.” It is the end of the 1970s, at the start of the Ed Koch era, depicted on screen by director Allan Moyle in Times Square, a film “squarely” in the tradition of teen-exploitation rock ‘n’ rebel movies hammered out by shrewd characters like Sam Katzman and Roger Corman and rushed into theaters in the ’50s and early ’60s. The iconoclast in question is Nicky Marotta, played by newcomer Robin Johnson, who meets Pamela Pearl (Trini Alvarado) in a mental hospital; the pair bust out, swipe an ambulance, and starting hanging around the titular area of Manhattan, which is kinda scary, but somehow they sprint around the Deuce relatively unscathed. Pamela, who is fourteen, gets hired as a dancer in a strip club, but convinces the owner to let her perform with her top on. The girls call themselves the Sleeze Sisters, and their signature song, “Your Daughter Is One,” is sprinkled with harsh language and by-the-book defiance (“You don’t know anything about what makes me tick!”), but fear not: their escapades aren’t particularly sleazy, or perilous; their adolescent exuberance is like an update of the odd-couple besotted teen girls in The World of Henry Orient. They scamper around to Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime,” and all the drug dealers, pimps, and hookers are just charmed by these energetic urchins. 

Robin Johnson as Nicky Marotta in the WJAD studio

There are a couple of things going on here. There’s the screenplay by Jacob Brackman (who wrote The King of Marvin Gardens, and the lyrics to a bunch of Carly Simon songs) and the intent of director Moyle, who wants to capture the fervor of what is, at its core, a lovers-on-the run story (there’s a little Rebel Without a Cause going on). But the sexual bond between Nicky and Pamela wound up being cut from the film; producer Robert Stigwood, who was interested in replicating the movie-plus-soundtrack success of Saturday Night Fever, wanted to de-emphasize the drama and turn up the music, so his RSO Records would have a double LP to peddle (synergy!). Moyle wasn’t too thrilled by this mandate, and walked off the film (he went on to direct two more teen cult movies, Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records), and Stigwood got the result he wanted. Times Square the album was released in September 1980, followed by the movie a month later. The movie was not universally embraced. Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, pointed out that this was “a Times Square without drugs, sex or violence but overflowing with rotten poetry.” Roger Ebert was somewhat kinder: “Of all the bad movies I’ve seen recently, this is the one that projects the real sense of a missed opportunity.”

Times Square’s music—the album, alas, is out of print—is a semi-cool ’70s mixtape, a jumble of obvious choices (the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the Talking Heads track), hip curveballs (XTC’s “Take This Town,” Tubeway Army’s “Down in the Park,” the Cure’s “Grinding Halt”), well-chosen cuts by the Patti Smith Group, Roxy Music, and Garland Jeffreys, and a couple of wacky selections. D.L. Byron takes a sledgehammer to the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and side one of the album (and the movie itself) concludes with a shoe-horned tune by Marcy Levy and Robin Gibb, “Help Me!,” because Stigwood had some luck with Gibb songs before, but sticking an exclamation point on this song’s title doesn’t make it any more compatible with Patti Smith or the Ramones. Also featured: Johnson and Alvarado’s “Your Daughter Is One” (“The Sleeze Sisters dedicate this to Brian Jones and all the other dinosaurs who got kicked out of the band,” which does feel like an ambivalent tribute), and Johnson doing “Damn Dog.” What the album doesn’t have is the on-air ramblings of Tim Curry as DJ LaGuardia, the Wolfman Jack, with an added dose of creepiness, of this whole enterprise.

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Times Square, RSO 1980

Times Square was part of a mini-boom in girl-power teen movies tied to the music biz. Earlier in 1980, Polygram Pictures and Casablanca Records & Filmworks released Adrian Lyne’s Foxes, which, despite trying to sell the idea of Scott Baio as leading man, managed to do for Los Angeles what Times Square failed to do for New York: give a sense of realism and capture teen nightlife (it also has vivid performances by Jodie Foster and Cherie Currie from the Runaways). And Casablanca’s double-LP soundtrack was primarily driven by Giorgio Moroder’s score (including the throbbing “On the Radio” by Donna Summer). Foxes was marketed as typical teen sensationalism—“They dare to do what others dream of,” “They move to a beat all their own”—but it’s is a seductive, well-observed movie, not just an afterthought to a soundtrack opportunity.

Even more fun than Foxes was a film that, like Times Square, was plagued by tension within its creative team, and lead to a compromised outcome. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, directed by record producer/entrepreneur Lou Adler, was shot around the same time as Times Square and Foxes, but was held back from release until 1982. In this case, the dispute led screenwriter Nancy Dowd to take her name off the film (she used a pseudonym for her credit), and it finally came out after Adler tacked on a mood-wrecking ending. Still, what’s on screen is a gas: Diane Lane, Laura Dern (also in Foxes), and Marin Kanter, as the Stains, are a proto-riot-grrl trio, feisty and brazen, and even if their feminist message (their slogan is “We’re the Stains and we don’t put out!”) is undercut by Adler’s leering camera (way too many crotch shots), there is a believable connection between Lane’s Corinne “Third Degree” Burns and the band’s fans. And the cast is rounded out by members of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Tubes.

 

VIDEO: Times Square trailer (1980)

“You wanna make Times Square as cold as your icy eyes?,” the Sleeze Sisters yelp on “Your Daughter Is One.” The problem with the movie is that it truly cranks up the heat only when the music is blaring. It’s not so much that the soundtrack album is a souvenir of the film, but that it’s an encapsulation of what was going on in actual New York (and England) from the early ’70s, when Lou Reed recorded “Walk on the Wild Side,” to the downtown scene (really, Times Square should have been retitled, and filmed on the Bowery) that launched the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Talking Heads, to the pre-MTV U.K. rock of the Pretenders, the Cure, and Joe Jackson. “There are eight million stories in the big city,” Johnny LaGuardia intones, flattening out the famous opening from Naked City.

The songs in Times Square—“Grinding Halt,” “Pissing in the River,” “Babylon’s Burning,” “Talk of the Town”—tell those stories. The rest, you can tune out.

 

AUDIO: Times Square soundtrack playlist 

 

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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

One thought on “Mixed-Up Kids: Times Square at 40

  • September 30, 2020 at 9:55 pm
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    great write-up, thanks for pulling those memories and songs back together. Without MTV or the internet, we barely knew some of those bands existed. I thought Times Square was the greatest album ever at the time. Unfortunately, the movie felt more like an ABC After School Movie.

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