If you wanna win, you have to learn how to play

headgames.pngOn 5 January 1980, “Head Games by Foreigner peaked at #14. 

I’m not a big fan of Foreigner; I think a lot of their music sounds a lot alike, and virtually indistinguishable from other arena rock acts that littered the charts throughout the 80s.  “Head Games” is as good a track as any to communicate this:  Mick Jones belting out strong rambling lyrics over a slow-paced, and yet tense, backing track of chrome-plated power chords and tromping drums.  I mean, there isn’t even a proper intro; the song just starts, as if it had always been playing, since the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of the LP. But in the context of everything else going on in 1979 and 1980, I can understand why Foreigner seemed like a big deal, because, frankly folks, this is about as good as it gets.

As predictable as Foreigner is, they’re a smidge better than other classic rock acts at the time and they’re leagues ahead of the disco and easy listening drivel.  I said Foreigner is barely indistinguishable from their peers, but they are distinguishable; their key changes aren’t in the obvious places, their lyrics aren’t predictable, even when the situations they’re singing about are.  In this song, the lyrics aren’t about how badly the woman treats him, or at least not only about that; they’re about the mental acrobatics the both of them are playing.  Even if he’s participating against his will, Mick is playing these head games, and that adds an interesting tension to the song that you don’t often find this high up in the charts.  So, keep on keepin’ on, Foreigner; you may not be playing music I like, but you’re at least putting something of moderately greater interest on the charts than most people bargained for from the top 40.

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Blast it… I missed one

I thought I’d finished with the first week of 1980, and going over my spreadsheet, I noticed I skipped a peak song.  Regardless, I’ll do a wrap-up of this first week, and then go back and pick up a foreigner tune.

So, the first week of 1980 was about as rocky as I thought it would be; a couple gems in The Police and M, a few pleasant surprises, and a whole lot of drivel in the form of ballads and disco nonsense.  And this has taken me several months, much longer than I had expected.  The good news is that because this was the first week in the year, I had to cover a lot more songs than I otherwise would have, because I was catching a lot on their way down from a 1979 peak.  The bad news is that the next week of 1980 still has 14 songs for me to cover, and it looks like the gem-to-dross ratio is going to be about the same.  So, nose to the grindstone, here comes some Foreigner….

In my lifetime I’ve had one dream come true

PleaseDontGoPlease Don’t GoOn 5 January 1980, “Please Don’t Go by K.C. and the Sunshine Band peaked at #1. 

Who knew that K. C. and the Sunshine Band didn’t just spout out fodder for wedding reception dances?  After listening to “Please Don’t Go”, I kind of wish that’s all there was to them.  When K. C. belts out dance albums, he at least sounds authoritative, or energetic, or something that makes all the bachelorettes jump up and stumble to the dance floor.  When he’s singing a lovelorn ballad like this, he sounds ridiculously nasal and impossibly earnest, a bit like a ferret whining to be let out of its cage.  K. C. does the usual rationalizing with the departing woman of his dreams, first telling her not to go, then saying that even is she does leave, he’s lucky to have had her love him, and then resorting to begging her (damn her deaf ears, can’t you hear him?) to not leave.  And musically it’s a lot of dreamy wispy nothing until toward the very end, they turn up the mike on the bass guitar so you can hear it thumping like… what exactly?  Her cold heart as she walks out the door?  We don’t have much time to think about that, because then K. C. does a really pathetic voiceover, and it’s over.  Really we’ve heard this all before, and we’ll hear more or less the same on any given day on the charts, only perhaps not as haplessly as this.  And yet, this hit #1.  What a way to end the first week of 1980.

I’ll need your love to see me through

StyxBabe.pngOn 5 January 1980, “Babeby Styx was at #6, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #1 in 1979. 

I’m torn on Styx.  On the one hand, superficially they’re the kind of soft rock band I generally dislike, wall watered down and weak, a perfect candidate for the love theme or end credit to a heartfelt light drama of some sort.  But there are Styx songs I like.  As for “Babe“… I’m torn.  It starts out like something from the Barry Manilow catalogue, with a dribbly keyboard intro and oh-so-sincere vocals.  And the lyrics really aren’t anything special; it’s the standard going-away-I’ll-miss-you song.  There’s a little bit of magic in “Babe” though, in the little keyboard riff that comes with the end of the chorus (first at 1:51) that’s got a good combination of anticipation and yearning in how it doesn’t quite resolve without the singer’s voice.  So, my verdict on “Babe” is that it’s tolerable; I can understand how it got to #1 (Styx’s only #1), but it’s not showing up on any playlist I put together.

 

Yesterday I swore I was gonna quit you

PabloCruiseIWantYouTonightOn 5 January 1980, “I Want You Tonightby Pablo Cruise peaked at #19, its highest position in the 80s. 

Rock in the late 70s had a particular sound.  I’m not talking about the bands who were active through the whole of the 70s, like Yes or Kansas or Deep Purple.  I’m talking specifically about bands that rose and fell between roughly 1975 and 1982.  They have an upbeat rolling soaring feel to them that gallops along at a steady but not frenzied pace.  They’re exuberant and happy, perhaps a little bit angstful and more subtly syncopated than disco.  They aspire.

They all sound like the theme to The Greatest American Hero, which we’ll talk about once I get to 1982.

Anyway, while I don’t get particularly excited about this sound, I don’t find it offensive either.  I can’t explain why — they all sound very similar to each other.  They all also conjure up in my mind an image that can only exist in the 1970s, a TV studio all done in maize-yellows and rust-orange with pixelated lights all over and funny close-cropped carpeted stairs leading to mysterious doors.  Sort of like the Match Game set:

match game.jpg

It’s also the style of music I associate with AM radio stations.  I’d be driving somewhere (well, at this stage, my mother would be driving), and it’s the sort of music WLS would be pushing out, fighting against the static heroically as we went through underpasses.

I have no idea if I’ve ever heard Pablo Cruise’s “I Want You Tonight“.  If I have, I have no firm memories of it in particular.  The lyrics are a pretty standard forbidden lust story, and, like many of the songs in this genre, just as you think it’s ready to fade out (at 2:50 in this case and then again at 3:52) it breaks to a stripped down bridge, complete with cowbell, to let you know you’ve got two minutes more to rock.  But it conjures up a time and place for me that’s indelible, but cloaked in the deep recesses of my memory.  It’s a perfect example of that late-70s garage band sound and it takes me back to a time when really all I can remember are images and sounds, and it makes me feel warmand wistful inside..

 

 

I was there when you were a queen

SoutherYou'reOnlyLonelyOn 5 January 1980, “You’re Only Lonelyby J. D. Souther was at #20, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #7 in 1979. 

I don’t have too much to say about “You’re Only Lonely” by J. D. Souther. It’s nice and harmless.  There aren’t many lyrics — what lyrics there are are a message from a friend to another friend that he’ll be there when she (I assume she) is feeling alone.  It doesn’t do much musically.  It’s slow and sweet, and a little bit forlorn; it’s not complicated or showy, but then it doesn’t need to be.

So instead I’ll mention a phenomenon that occurs in every decade:  the nostalgia cycle.  In a nostalgia cycle, popular culture starts to dip back into the past for inspiration; sometimes the inspiration creates something spectacular and new, sometimes you just get stuff that sounds like it’s thirty years old.  This song is in the latter category, and is part of a retro-50s cycle that took place through much of the early 80s.  Can’t you hear Roy Orbison singing this?  Or The Everly Brothers?  So yeah, “You’re Only Lonely” is a competent if not particularly exciting throwback to the early slow songs of rock and roll.