Thoughts fly back to the breakup

RainbowSinceYouBeenOn 5 January 1980, “Since You Been Gone” by Rainbow was at #94, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #57 in 1979. 

Before this week, I’d never heard of Rainbow, let alone “Since You Been Gone,” and I’ll admit that with a name like Rainbow, I was expecting disco.  Lame disco.  But that’s not what I got when I visited Youtube.  Instead I got a fun, if not exceptional, classic rock band belting out a fun, if not exceptional, breakup song.  The lyrics are smart; instead of telling us how much he loves her, the singer belts out his angst about waking up in the middle of the night and going out to stand under a streetlight with memories of a bitter Dear John letter in his head.  It’s sad and angry and smarter than I was expecting, and though I’m not rushing to Amazon to download it, I can understand why the youth of America wanted to listen to it enough to get it into the Hot 100.

But the bigger surprises came when I went to Wikipedia.  The band centered on Ritchie Blackmoore, previously of Deep Purple, and Ronnie James Dio, who has quite a following in the metal world.  By 1979, Dio had left the band, but Cozy Powell had already joined the group as drummer, and appears on “Since You Been Gone”.  Yeah, fine, this isn’t exactly a super group, but Rainbow nonetheless has a pretty good pedigree, and I’m surprised that I’d not stumbled on them earlier.

The surprises didn’t stop there, though.  It turns out that “Since You Been Gone” was written and first performed by Russ Ballard, who’s a pretty prolific song writer; we’ll be hearing a few more of his songs as we progress through the 80s. After clicking on the link above, you can check out Russ Ballard’s original here.  I personally prefer Rainbow’s version; I think the glam stylings of Ballard’s original haven’t aged well, whereas Rainbow still rocks.

All of us under its spell

KermitRainbowConnectionOn 5 January 1980, “The Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog was at #95, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #25 in 1979. 

You don’t have to be a good singer to be a successful musical performer.  In my last entry, I looked at Kenny Rogers, who is definitely a talented singer, but who put in a particularly boring and not entertaining performance singing “You Decorated My Life”. On the opposite end of the scale is Jim Henson, as Kermit the Frog, who is not a particularly good singer, but makes “The Rainbow Connection” a charming, endearing song that a whole generation of Gen X-ers remembers fondly. The secret to being a successful entertainer, regardless of genre, is to capture an emotion and deliver it to the audience.  Kenny Rogers didn’t convince me he was in love when he sang to us about how his plain paper heart was colored anew, but when Kermit the Frog sings about how he believes in hope and magic, I believe him.

From the first tentative, gentle banjo twangs that open The Muppet Movie, we can feel that Kermit is full of hope but intensely vulnerable.  His voice is equally tentative, almost halting, as he sings to us about the uncertain nature of our dreams.  Rainbows are illusions and wishes made on morning stars are only a folk tale, after all, and even a dreamer like Kermit recognizes the futility in thinking there’s more than that.   But before he gets to the chorus, we can tell from his voice, the wistfulness and the gentle awe at the world, that Kermit believes in rainbows and wishes anyway, and he makes us want to believe with him.

In the context of The Muppet Movie, “The Rainbow Connection” sets up the entire plot; the song makes an unlikely story believable — a frog and a pig and a bear and a whatever-Gonzo-is are going to travel across the country to make a movie in Hollywood despite being patently untalented in any endeavor but hoping — and it makes me (and you, I hope) want them to succeed.  In the context of the Muppets as a cast of characters, moments like “The Rainbow Connection” make puppets made of felt and foamcore and metal rods seem human, more human in some ways than real flesh-and-blood pop stars sweating under spotlights in satin sequin-studded suits.  And warmed by those sentiments, I feel happy for the Muppets the way I feel happy for my friends when they succeed in their own adventures, more happy that Kermit the Frog could reach #25 on the singles chart than I could possibly feel for any other artist reaching #1.

Painting your love all over my heart

220px-Kenny_Rogers_Decorated_singleOn 5 January 1980, “You Decorated My Life” by Kenny Rogers was at #97, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #7 in 1979. 

Kenny Rogers is a lot more representative of the months bridging 1979 and 1980 than are The Police.  Music in the late 70s was pretty rudderless; people had started to hate disco, rock was still largely caught up in glam, punk was too aggressive and noisy to gain a popular following, and much of what was left were ballads that sat at the confluence of pop, rock, folk, and country. Not all of the music that fits these categories was bad, but a lot of it was.

You Decorated My Life” would be a particularly dreadful representative of the badness that results when popular culture lacks a creative edge, if it weren’t for the merciful fact that it’s totally forgettable.  I say it’s dreadful because the lyrics are such utter nonsense that I have to wonder how Rogers can sing it with out cracking up.  We know he can, because there’s concert footage of him singing “by painting your love all over my heart” without so much as a curl of the corner of his mouth.  He’s singing a love song to the interior designer of his dreams, who excels in bringing the clichés of harmony, color, and rhyme and reason into the lives of the dull.  And to top it off, there’s a world where dreams are a part… but Kenny doesn’t tell us what they’re a part of.  We hardly notice as the soft schmaltzy music rises in a wave of bathos, because we’re wondering, (or at least I am) whether he’s too overwhelmed to finish the thought, or if his grammar’s just lacking.

And then it’s over. On the one hand, it being over is a good thing, but on the other hand, it’s hard to even notice that it’s over, because musically, “You Decorated My Heart” is really boring.  It’s trying to be a touching slow dance number, presumably for burgeoning lovers to sway back and forth to effortlessly while they concentrate on how nice each other look, but even at only three and a half minutes, I have trouble imagining a couple not deciding their time is better spent mumbling sweet nothings to each other over by the punch bowl.  I’m not a big fan of dramatic key changes or unnecessary saxophone solos, but I accept that they serve a purpose:  to distinguish the songs they’re in from other songs, to give you something to remember.  “You Decorated My Heart” has none of that.  I’ve listened to it five or six times now in the last few days and I can’t recreate the melody in my head because it’s so mundane and uninteresting.  For a song about a person bringing color, music, rhyme, and reason to another person’s life, it’s the sonic equivalent of beige.

A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore

MessageInABottleOn 5 January 1980, “Message in a Bottle” by The Police was at #100, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position in 1979 was #74.

I knew in advance that the start of this project would be rough.  New wave really hadn’t started catching on in the US, or even in Britain, by the beginning of 1980, and I’ve been bracing myself for all sorts of horribleness at the beginning of this project.  So it is heartwarming to see that I get to start with The Police, a popular band I’ve always liked.

Message in a Bottle” is serendipitously appropriate, too, because, in a way, it captures internet culture in a way contemporary songs really haven’t.  Ostensibly about a man stranded on a desert island, Message in a Bottle is really a lament about the desperation a person can feel in a crowded, but lonely, world.  The music plays on this nicely:  quick, feverish guitar as Sting sings about how he’s agitated and lonely, a flurry of mental activity as he writes his note, and then the music becomes lilting and wistful and he casts the bottle to the waves and starts to hope that there’s someone on the other end to rescue him from his solitude.  And the music picks up at the joy of discovering one morning a hundred billion bottles on the beach, each a response to his original message!  All those people out there that are just as lonely as the singer, or at least interested in that lonely person stranded out on an island!  The song ends on a striving note, encouraging people to send out those SOS messages because somewhere out there, there’s a lot of people who want to read them.

Is it any wonder, then, that Generation X took so avidly to the internet?  As products of what seemed to be an increasingly atomized culture, children of Generation X found in the internet — with email, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this one — a more efficient way to make sure that like-minded people picked up their various messages in a bottle.  Whatever the interest, there is someone out there on the internet, among the billions of people in the world, who shares it.  Now we don’t have to be as angst-ridden as The Police were in trying to find those people.


The big idea

I recently read two news articles about social science research, each of which came to a different conclusion.  In the first, the scientists involved did a lot of analysis of popular music — looking at the top 40 singles of each year — and determined that there were three major musical revolutions since 1950, when the music that was popular changed dramatically from year to year.  These three changes happened in 1964, 1983, and 1991.  The other article argued that popular music in the 1980s was incredibly boring because the top 40 singles all sounded the same.

They’re both right.

And I’m going to venture to explain why, one single at a time, from 1 January 1980 to 31 December 1989, every song to appear on Billboard’s top 100 chart.  In each of my entries to this blog I’ll talk about what was right and what was wrong about music in the 1980s.  Along the way, I’ll talk about each performer from ABBA to ZZ Top, I’ll talk about lyrics, be they sublime or inane, I’ll talk about genres from punk to easy listening, I’ll talk occasionally about what was going on at the time or tidbits from my own life, and every so often, I’ll talk about what the US wasn’t listening to.  At times it’s going to be totally awesome and at other times it’s going to be totally lame, but most of all, it’s going to be fun.

So, let’s rock.