I don’t wanna tie you down

DamnedIfIDoOn 5 January 1980, “Damned If I Do” by The Alan Parsons Project was at #27, its highest position in the 80s. 

I don’t know of anyone who gets passionate about The Alan Parsons Project.  There are all sorts of progressive rock bands that have very passionate fans.  There are Genesis people and Yes people and King Crimson People; heck, I’m a Frank Zappa person, and if he’s not a prog rock act, that’s only because he’s involved in so many styles of music that he doesn’t fit into one genre, and let me tell you the Frank Zappa people are downright crazy fans.  So, sure, there are quite a few passionate fans of prog rock, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who gets excited about The Alan Parsons Project.

Damned If I Do“, I think, is indicative of why.  Progressive rock is all about doing unusual things with music, at least unusual things by mid-70s standards, and fans of progressive rock want unusual time signatures, interesting instrumentation, acrobatic guitar, and epic set-piece songs.  This song is none of that.  It’s a straightforward song about a dude in a difficult relationship in a 4/4 time signature with tame synthesizers pretending to be brass.  It even has violin, though admittedly not the horrible disco violin I usually complain about.  Sure, it’s darker and more brooding than your standard top 40 song — the twinkling keyboard notes sound like fading lights of hope over the relentless moody pace of the rest of the song — but it sounds exactly like what it is, the sanitized for top-40 version of progressive rock.  Don’t get me wrong, I like this song:  it’s haunting how this singer is pursued by the gloom of the music and the situation he’s found himself in.  But it’s not special in the way progressive rock is supposed to be special.

I don’t want to sound unfair here, because I think The Alan Parsons Project has their place.  They’re an easy on-ramp to building up an appreciation for progressive rock, and they did do a lot of interesting work in building concept albums.  And they do eventually put out an incredible, unforgettable single, which we’ll talk about a bit later.  But most of the material they put on the charts, “Damned If I Do” included, is the kind of stuff normal listeners note as a pleasant curiosity and progressive rock fans grow beyond.

New York, London, Paris, Munich

220px-Pop_MuzikOn 5 January 1980, “Pop Muzik” by M was at #32, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #1 in 1979. 

That change I was talking about last post, that would rescue the world from the mundanity of insincere ballads, the predictability of mass-produced disco, and the feebleness of soft rock?  That change is new wave, and the first instance of real new wave I get to talk about is “Pop Muzik” by M.

As a self-professed new wave boy, I was aware of this song before starting this project, but I didn’t remember it from my childhood.  I know it mainly as fodder from nearly every series of new wave compilation albums, but I had no idea it went all the way to number 1 in late 1979.  How does a light fluffy nonsense song get to number 1?  Well, it helps that this particular light fluffy nonsense song is a bit of a novelty song.  There were lots of serious new wave songs happening at roughly the same time — Ultravox, Roxy Music, The Tubeway Army — but audiences, well, American audiences anyway, weren’t having any of it.  But something that fizzes and pops like the pop muzik it either praises or mocks (“wanna be a gun-slinger, don’t be a rock singer”), well, that something can cut through the sentimental and overproduced schlock on the charts to have a moment in the sun.

From the first chords, Pop Muzik tells you it’s announcing something new: it’s a fanfare of synthesizer; no drums, no brass, no guitar, no aching or tweezing violin, just pure synthetic keyboard telling you that this is something the likes of which you’ve not heard before.  Then the song regales your ears with all sorts of noises, pulsing and popping around each other in complicated patterns.  Seductive, but decidedly not soulful backup singers caress your ears:  they don’t tell you to listen, or berate you for not listening, they just sing, and if you don’t want to hear them, it’s your loss.  If there’s anything this song harkens back to, it’s 50’s do-wop, “shooby-dooby-doo-wop” in this song’s parlance.  If you’ve seen the movie 20 Feet from Stardom, you may remember one backup singer saying of The Monster Mash that it was the song where she was asked to sing like a white girl — the singers in Pop Muzik may as well have been those white girls.

The thing is that, as much as this song calls you to dance, it’s practically impossible to put into a meaningful set with disco songs.  It’s the anti-disco.  It’s jumpy, it’s jerky, and it has no violin!  You have to think to find the beat.  It only makes sense in the context of other jumpy jerky new wave songs.  There were clubs at the time that were devoted solely to new wave music, but it wasn’t filtering into mainstream radio yet.  In a few years, it would be dominating the charts.


Fill me up to the top

Half the Way.pngOn 5 January 1980, “Half the Way” by Crystal Gayle was at #33, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #15 in 1979. 

As I look at the periods of music I most dislike, I find that they all tend to have at least this one thing in common: the songs that dominate them are over-produced, so polished and clean that there’s no hint of spontaneity, no suggestion that there might be a raw emotion hidden away in the depths of the performers’ souls, no threat that there might be an off beat or the wayward scratch of a guitar string to suggest that, maybe, the people involved in the production are human beings and not flawless immortal muses.  The music now is like that; the music of the late 80s was like that; a lot of the music in the 1950s — the age of pitch-perfect soulless vocalists — was like that; and the late 70s were definitely like that.  Sometimes a polished performer can make an overproduced song still sound like magic (see my post about Anne Murray’s “Broken Hearted Me“); usually they can’t.

Crystal Gayle’s “Half the Way” is a prime example of a song that’s so overproduced as to wring all the potential out of what is actually interesting writing.  Look at this first metaphor:  “Some of your time is like one glass of water:  it just leaves me thirsty for wine.”  That’s a good lyric; it takes the familiar trope of a lover’s presence being like an intoxicant, but does something interesting with it, and it introduces the main conceit of the song — half versus whole — simply but interestingly.  But is Crystal Gayle really aching, reaching for a sip of that full glass?  Not with her perfectly weird elocution.  Listen to her lightly pronounce the L in “half”. Listen to her burble “Fill me up to the top” gently instead of achingly. Listen to her “oh no” fail to sound like imploring.  And, yes, there’s a key change that fails to raise the urgency of the song.

I wonder what this song would sound like if it were performed by a singer that sounded like she had emotions instead of sounding like an alien pronouncing syllables that resemble English words.  I imagine Janis Joplin singing this in a manner similar to “Another Piece of My Heart“, begging that guy to fill her to the top, chastising him for only offering her a glass of water when he should be giving her wine by the gallon.  Then I imagine the song done in a cold dismissive tone, like Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It“.  And then I wonder why no one of note has covered “Half the Way” to give it some soul.  I like to think that Crystal Gayle has the emotion in her to do this song right, and that it’s just that the music industry in the late 70s was deliberately trying to be anodyne.  There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that’s the case, and it’s the same evidence that suggested that things simply had to change.


Everybody wants to touch somebody

EaglesHeartacheOn 5 January 1980, “Heartache Tonight” by The Eagles was at #34, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #1 in 1979. 

I know The Eagles have their fans, but I just don’t get it. I’ve never found their writing, their guitar-work, or their singing to be anything special. They’re not exactly bad, they’re just, well… safe. Bland.  Safe and bland are, by definition, not interesting.

Anyway, “Heartache Tonight” is the kind of song I was afraid “Train, Train” would be:  rambling, overpolished, clean, and, at four and a half minutes, twice as long as it need to be to get whatever message it’s trying to communicate communicated.  “Heartache Tonight” is the musical equivalent of that guy who gets a little too extroverted when he’s had a few drinks, lumbering around the bar, greeting everyone with a smile and a high-five, and then leaving with an ambiguously menacing comment like, “This night is gonna last forever!” or “We can leave it in the parking lot!” or “Lord, I know!” in response to nothing in particular.  He spills beer everywhere, and when you ask the bartender how many beers he’s had, he says, “Only two, man!” and you know that’s right, because, just like Glenn Frey’s vocals, he sounds too clean, crisp, and together for him to actually be lost in the music, or the night, or his drinks, or whatever.  Boring?  Bland?  Who am I kidding?  This song is insincere, pretending to be having more fun than it is.

I’m just a raggedy hobo

TrainTrainOn 5 January 1980, “Train, Train” by Blackfoot peaked at #38.

I’ll admit that when I first heard the harmonica intro to Blackfoot’s “Train Train I was concerned.  I don’t know much about Southern Rock — some Lynyrd Skynnyrd, some CCR, and a particularly goofy song by Little Feat that has made Commodore the default hotel name in my subconscious — and that harmonica was reinforcing all of my preconceived notions of what uninspired knockoff Dixie rock would sound like.

Boy was I wrong; “Train Train” rocks!  It rollicks along with a driving guitar and a thumping beat, and that harmonica really gets down to its wailing business once the song starts proper.  This is the song that most sounds like a train to me since I first heard Captain Beefheart’s “Click Clack“.  There are lyrics, about driving a no-good woman away and then taking a train out of town to escape, well, something, either that no-good woman or cruel fate or some other looming threat.  But really the lyrics are incidental, they’re just an excuse to board that midnight train to Memphis and coast out of town.

It’s an unfortunate artifact of radio that a track as good as this wallows in the lower reaches of the top-40, whereas Anne Murray and Barry Manilow can command the top ranks.  The top 40 is, of course, dominated by songs you can listen to anywhere, and no bank manager wants a song about a raggedy hobo playing in their waiting room, not now, and certainly not in 1980.  This is the first song in this project that I’ve felt I really need to go download; I’m hoping there will be a lot more.