She said, “Oh, it’s you…”

PinaColadaEscape (The Pina Colada Song)” was the last #1 hit of 1979; it dropped to #2 and returned to #1 for one more week on 12 January, 1980.

If you know your 70s music really well, you may be aware that Rupert Holmes has a wicked sense of humor.  You see, he was responsible for one of 1971’s weirdest hits, “Timothy“, which is about three guys who get stuck in a mine during a cave in, and two of them eat the third.  “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” isn’t nearly as morbid or controversial, and it’s a lot easier on the ears, but it still has a wry irony to it.

Underneath that vaguely tropical beat and that windswept wistful guitar solo, there’s a story worthy of O. Henry.  “Like a worn out recording of a favorite song,” the singer has found himself living a boring routine day in and day out with his wife.  On a whim, he reads in the personals a slightly snarky ad from a woman who wants a mildly adventurous guy:  not into yoga, has half a brain, likes to make love at midnight in sand dunes, and, of course, a fan of pina coladas.  He responds with an ad on a similar snark level, suggesting they meet up at a bar and plan their escape

Now, if The Kinks had written this song, the mystery woman would be a transvestite.  If Morrissey or Anne Clarke had written it, the mystery woman would never show up.  But Rupert, bless him, has the woman turn up, and, of course, it’s the same world-weary wife the singer is trying to escape from.

I want to point out a really magical moment in this song:  at 2:47, when she sees her husband there in the bar, she says, “Oh, it’s you,” and you can just feel both the disappointment and the humor welling up in her soul.  It’s a line suitable for an episode of Soap that seems like a throwaway, but on which hinges the soul of this song.  It’s such a human response; it shows that Rupert Holmes really is a very good observer of human behavior.

How does the song end?  In much the way that episode of Soap would… the couple probably briefly considers being angry at each other, but then, with a smile, rediscover the exciting sides of each other that they’d clearly forgotten.  I like to think that they do make their escape, together, to Aruba or Abaco or some other Caribbean island to have their pina coladas and sand-dune trysts.  It sure sounds like the man in the equation is getting there emotionally; with what sounds like a wry smile, he starts, “I didn’t know you like pina coladas…”

And to be honest, I didn’t know I liked the Pina Colada song until I really listened to it.  I’d heard it in passing so many times and assumed it was boring drivel, but now that I’ve really paid attention to it, like the two people in the song, I’ve realized there’s a lot more to it than I had given it credit for.  It has a humorous, slightly edgy side to it that hides under a mundane exterior; it tickles my brain, and my funny bone, and my heart all at once.  It’s a keeper.

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With a dozen roses

SendOneYourLoveOn 12 January 1980, “Send One Your Love” by Stevie Wonder peaked at #4. 

For most of these first two weeks of 1980, I’ve been very down on the listening habits of the American public.  I stand by much of what I’ve said:  people generally don’t like to be challenged too much when they’re relaxing, and let’s face it, for most people the radio is background music.  Occasionally, though, a song will manage to be challenging, accessible, and a hit.  Usually a song like that has to come out of an established act, who was successful with more standard fare and then has the reputation to get away with something more difficult.  Here is a perfect example:  “Send One Your Love” by Stevie Wonder.

Now, you’re listening to this song and probably wondering what I’m talking about. It has the standard verse-chorus structure, a pretty straightforward time signature, pretty standard instrumentation, and, heck, it’s a love song.  But listen to it closer.  Listen, just before he sing’s “Send her your love” each time:  the instruments lift to an unresolved chord progression, creating an actual moment of audial tension.  And the whole song does this really; the chord progression slips and slides, but always ends on a chord that leaves the phrase unresolved, leading you on through the song by the hand.  You can’t listen to this song and feel like you got your musical closure out of it unless you listen all the way to the end with that gentle faded out harmonica and tinkle-bell.  It’s musically challenging in ways that no other song I’ve covered so far has been.

And the lyrics aren’t your standard love song.  Stevie isn’t talking about how much he loves someone; he’s talking about how much he wishes other people could express their feelings to each other.  It’s not exactly untrodden territory in a pop song, but it’s rare enough a message that I’m always surprised to hear it explored.

So, briefly, Stevie is managing to be subtle and intelligent, and he’s managing to sneak his expert musicianship into a smooth jazz package that lets the complexities sneak past people’s pop cultural danger sensors.  I wish more music sounded like this — easy to listen to, but very interesting when you actually pay close attention.

 

Most of all, I do love you

commodores-still-motown-3.jpgOn 12 January 1980, “Still” by The Commodores was at #6.  It peaked at #1 in 1979.

Still” by The Commodores is something of a lesson in being wary of what you wish for.  You may have noticed by now that I complain a lot about popular music having only two tempos:  the disco 120 beats per minute dance and the much slower intimate sway.  “Still” is slower still.  This thing is a stripped down slow dance with every dulcet tone waiting just that extra half-beat before emerging from the piano.  I can’t tell if the notes are reluctant or anxious to get into the open air, but either way the effect is curious:  what should be a straight-forward smooth ballad feels like a choppy, lumbering song, almost a dirge.  This is somewhat fitting, given that the song’s about a love turned sour, but by the same token, it’s awkward to listen to.  Right to that last, slightly delayed, almost sickeningly moist “still” I get goose bumps, and not the oh-this-is-so-sexy kind, more like the this-falls-in-the-uncanny-valley kind.  So, I’ll pass on this one; I’m not offended by it, but it feels creepy listening to it.

Enchained by your own sorrow

ChiquititaOn 12 January 1980, “Chiquitita” by ABBA  peaked #28.

Brace yourself… it’s ABBA.  Admittedly, “Chiquitita“, which I’ve never heard before.  But, still, it’s ABBA, and we know what that means…

So, hit play on Youtube and wait…

And the first thing we get is a gentle, vaguely Spanish, guitar intro.  And a sweet Swedish voice, lilting quite beautifully over fingers delicately tripping over guitar strings and piano keys, asking a woman to share her sorrow, reassuring her, sharing in her sadness.  Maybe, just maybe, I have been deafened by “Dancing Queen” and all the other rubbish nonsense I’ve heard by ABBA into a misconception that they are loathsome.  I wonder to myself, “How could I have been so wrong?” as I continue to listen…

Until 1:45.

At 1:45 ABBA starts to sound like ABBA again, like a pair self-aggrandizing Scandinavian harpies strutting in perfect 4/4 time to a pompous march fit for any Teutonic oompah band to blast while marching down your street, while really you’re trying to have a tender moment with a loved one.

ABBA, you see, is mercifully the only famous thing to come out of the Eurovision Contest, and this is the classic Eurovision sound; unsubtle, bombastic, feel-good nonsense designed to be as distracting and easy to digest as possible.  This song asserts, with no apparent grounds that you, Chiquitita, will overcome everything bad in your life, because everything is really just wonderful if you put your mind to it.  Sing a new song as the walls come tumbling down (as they always seem to do in pop songs; where do songwriters live that walls fall down more often than they stay put like walls are supposed to?), turn your brain off, and join the harpies marching down the street.  Because, you see, ABBA didn’t really care what it was you were so sad about anyway — what something about love? Who cares?  Tomorrow’s a new tomorrow and there’s a new song (please!  a new song!) and Agnetha and Anni-Frid feel much better now that you’re pretending to be happy.

Well, Agnetha and Anni-Frid can go jump in a lake.  I want to hear what Chiquitita has to say.  I wanted to hear her tell me her sorrows over that limpid guitar.  I wanted someone to listen, actually listen to her problem and tell her that whether things go right or not, that person would be with her.  I wanted ABBA to be sensitive to Chiquitita’s problem, not to only be sensitive to the fact that she has a problem.

 

 

Ho-tel, mo-tel, Holiday Inn

Rapper's DelightOn 12 January 1980, “Rapper’s Delightby The Sugar Hill Gang peaked #36.

So, a while back, I said that the music industry was ready for a change, and I said that change was coming in the shape of new wave.  That was true, but only half-true.  In the short term — through to 1985, it was correct.  In the long term, there was to be another solution, and that’s rap, which has more or less taken over the pop charts now, and subsequently become part of the problem.  But back in 1980, rap was only a phenomenon at certain inner city block parties.

Until  “Rapper’s Delight” hit the charts.  It is the rap song:  not the first one (that’s arguably “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil-Scott Heron), but the first one to hit the top 40, and the first one to set the standards for what rap should be.

First, a procedural note:  I think the version that I linked to above is the one that made the charts, butt there’s a fourteen minute version with a lot more lyrics (including a brilliant call-out to Kaopectate), and that’s the one I’ll talk about here.

So, the first thing you might notice about “Rapper’s Delight” is that the actual music is derivative, in this case the bassline and violin accents are lifted right out of “Good Times” by Chic.  This is an industry standard:  rap isn’t about the music itself (though that helps), it’s about being able to do something interesting vocally over preexisting music.  This isn’t just a factor in rap music (“Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen uses the same bassline) but it is something that rap songs (and derivative genres like techno and hip hop) do a lot more often than songs in other styles. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and that is especially true in rap:  if you write a catchy backbeat that makes people dance, it’s only a matter of time before some rap guy gets his ears and hands on it and raps something completely different over it.

As lyrics go, “Rapper’s Delight” does everything a rap song is supposed to do.  It’s undeniable that these guys are really good rappers:  they syncopate their syllables and hit every beat for over fourteen minutes.  And they rap about rap stuff.  The first verse is rap guys rapping about who they are, and how good they are at rapping, marking their turf, so to speak.  And there’s a verse bragging about all the swag the rapper has:  cars, a pool, more clothes than Muhammad Ali (say what?!), and a color TV to watch the Knicks play (this is back when a color TV was still a big deal; my family didn’t have one until 1982).  But more importantly, there are verses in this song that are funny.  Somewhere along the line, people forgot that rap music could be, maybe should be, funny.  There’s a verse here where the rapper is macking on Lois Lane, bragging that he’s a better lover than Superman (can you possibly hear about the rapper comparing his “super-sperm” to the little worm of a panty-hose clad fairy without laughing?)  And then there’s a verse about being subjected to the awful food at a friends house, food so bad the rapper has to go pick up that bottle of Keopectate.  Boasting with clever turns of phrase and coaxing your fans to laugh while they dance, this is what early rap was all about; it’s what inspired Will Smith and The Beastie Boys,  and it’s where rap would be until the much more serious, and much edgier, gangsta rap started to burble up from the projects in the later 80s.

How influential is “Rapper’s Delight”?  Pretty soon, you’ll hear Kurtis Blow borrowing some of these lyrics in a song.  Ditto with Blondie, who will take rap to number one.  More unusually, twenty years later, Las Ketchup will have a hit with “Asereje“, which is about a guy trying to request “Rapper’s Delight” at a club, but, because he can’t remember the title, he sings a mangled Spanish garble of the lyrics.  A song that’s inspiring hits two decades on in a completely different language?  That’s an influential classic.

 

Oh, Baby, carry on

Coolidge I'd RatherOn 12 January 1980, “I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love by Rita Coolidge peaked #38.

It’s another namby-pamby easy-listening dirge cum ballad, this time, Rita Coolidge’s limp “I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love“, which I think to be a particularly awful example of the genre.  With mixed metaphors (roses dying on vines, never mind that they grow on bushes), triumphal chords at the least triumphal part of the song (“you and I!  Can’t say good-bye!”), and a generally somnolent approach to music in general, this is the sort of thing Allstate would use as hold music in the hope that you fall asleep before they can connect you to the complaints department.  The worst part of the whole package is the drippy sentimental tone with which it handles noncommittal responsibility.  I don’t mind a song about someone who cops out on relationships because he or she is afraid of getting hurt.  I do mind them when they try to sentimentalize such people instead of presenting them as cads.  Or cowards.  The less said about this song the better; I’m offended, and I think most people would be too if this song weren’t the audio equivalent of cream soda.

Listen here, how we sing it in your ear

Bar Keys Boogie BodyOn 12 January 1980, “Move Your Boogie Body” by The Bar-Kays was at #57. It peaked in 1979 at #53. 

OK, let’s talk about “Move Your Boogie Body” and let’s talk about funk, because “Move Your Boogie Body” is as funk as funk gets.   Which is to say I hate it.

Which is not to say I hate funk in general; there’s a lot of fun and interesting funk.  Like “Brick House” by The Commodores; who doesn’t like “Brick House”?  And there’s a lot about funk in general I like — interesting instrumentation, complicated rhythms, a general sinuosity, and lots of bass guitar.  The problem with lots of funk groups, though, is that they want to sound like they’re the center of everything that’s funk, and as a result, there are a lot of bands that sound alike and, strangely, unintelligible. And that’s “Move Your Boogie Body” in a nutshell.  There’s too much going on to get a sense for how this song is its own creature; it just sounds like all sorts of other funk songs.  This is the disco of funk.  And I can’t understand a word anyone is saying.  Unintelligibility is not a problem in of itself when the voice is being used more as an instrument than in communicating information; Sigur Ros (definitely not funk) is brilliant at singing meaningless lyrics in ways that are musically intriguing.  But the vocals in a lot of funk songs are jarring in a way that, while not exactly cacophonous, isn’t exactly musical either.  The Bar-Keys are the kind of funk I can do without, but which was very very popular in the late 70s.  It’ll take us until about 1985 before there’s going to be funk I like, I fear.

 

Hey, hit the highway

CougarLoverOn 12 January 1980, “I Need a Lover” by John Cougar Melloncamp was at #69. It peaked in1979 at #28. 

I don’t know whether to be annoyed or inwardly impressed by the lyrics to “I Need a Lover“.  On the one hand, for a guy in a dead-end existence, living his life out in pool rooms and a hole of an apartment, to think that part of the solution is finding some chick who will go away after getting it on with him is at best misguided. The sex might be fun and all, but it’s not going to help him get anything in order.  On the other hand, at least he’s honest about what he wants. He’s frustrated and lonely and while he’s sorting things out, he just wants some action, you know?  It’s not even like he’s complaining about women (which you might expect from a song whose refrain is “I want a lover who won’t drive me crazy”). I was expecting this song to be a litany of complaints about the women who have messed up his life, sort of a tamer version of Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me“.  No, he’s just not interested in commitment, which isn’t a horrible thing, so long as he’s honest about it to people other than himself.  It’s hard to tell if he is, given the roller-coaster ride of an intro:  that seems to signal a lot of shifting emotions going from expectation to disappointment.  But let’s not judge; let’s just hope that this guy gets on with his life and finds a better place.  As for Melloncamp himself — this was his first top 40 hit, and he’s set for quite a lot more, so no need to worry about him.