Put me in your pocket

bullens_05_45_trust_me_a.gifOn 26 January, 1980, “Trust Meby Cindy Bullens peaked at #90.

Before I can talk about “Trust Me” at any length, I have to talk about Cindy Bullens first.  Cindy started as a backup singer; you can hear her on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee and on a few songs from the Grease soundtrack. She had a few albums in the late 70s, had a family, and then put out a few more albums in the 90s and early 2000s, but only ever scored one singe — “Trust Me” — on the Hot 100.  Also, in the years leading up to 2102, she became a female-to-male transsexual, and renamed herself Cidny.  This makes it hard for me to use pronouns when talking about her, but, given that the song was written, performed, and recorded while Cidny was Cindy, I’m going to use the feminine pronouns when referring to her pre-transition career.

“Trust Me” is a pleasant surprise.  I was expecting something vapid like those songs she provided backup vocals for, and maybe at first blush “Trust Me” sounds like that — a standard romping torch song.  But the lyrics go a ways past what’s standard for the genre.  Its narrator is confronted with a suspicious lover, and sure she asserts her loyalty to him (or her, I guess) as we expect:  “I wouldn’t hurt you if my life depended on it,” and so on.  But she also addresses the lover’s insecurities, pointing out that he (or she) “got wounded in the war of hearts” and that Cindy’s there to care.  This song isn’t just heartfelt and earnest; it also looks into the feelings of someone other than the singer herself, which is something too few popular songs do.  Even Elton and Kiki can’t stop talking about themselves in “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” enough to talk about what the other feels.  Great art is supposed to make us think new ideas, feel new feelings, and, presumably, build empathy.  A song like “Trust Me” goes further in doing that, and that’s refreshing.

Excuses are hard to find

Breathless Takin it BackOn 26 January, 1980, “Takin’ It Back by Breathless peaked at #92.

I get the feeling that Breathless was a little bit ahead of their time.  Not in that they are particularly good — “Takin’ It Back” is a pretty standard, unremarkable rockin’ arena rock song — but they’re certainly not bad, and there’s not much separating them from the other power chord, soaring guitar, generic synth sound back-up arena rock that would be all over the charts in a few years.  Or even months.  Breathless sounds like it’s presaging bands like The Cars, Journey, Asia, The Tubes, that 80s jocks remember fondly.  For whatever reason — lack of marketing support from EMI perhaps — Breathless didn’t get much traction outside of Akron, Ohio and the immediate area; nice to have, but not exactly a springboard to fame and fortune.

We have to remember that the environment for popular music today is unusual in that it’s national, or even universal.  Whatever you hear on Akron radio stations today is pretty much identical to what you’d be hearing in Seattle and Amarillo and Richmond and New York,  London, Paris, Munich.. everywhere .  That wasn’t true in the US until… I’m not entirely sure, but my guess is sometime in the early 90s.  In the early 80s, though, you still had local hits by local bands.  If you were in Ohio, you were hearing Breathless, whereas if you were in Austin, you were  hearing, say, Gary Myrick.  Different parts of the country had different sounds, and each regional sound had some interesting stuff going on that you could miss entirely, and some of it was good.  Or maybe it wasn’t necessarily good, but it spoke to you in a way that the national music hitting the top 40 wouldn’t.  It was a labor of love to find this music and to get the sense that you weren’t missing something somehow, and it’s part of that feeling that has me still finding interesting music from 20 years ago — people played for their local audience and hoped that would get them on the charts, whereas today it seems everyone is writing music to get on the charts, and whatever it is that was special to a particular artist got lost in the processing.

From New York to Hollywood

Kool_and_the_Gang_Ladies_Night_single.jpgOn 19 January, 1980, “Ladies’ Night” by Kool & The Gang peaked at #8.

I don’t dislike “Ladies’ Night” the way I dislike most other disco songs, and it’s in part because Kool & The Gang tend to go a few steps further than their disco compatriots to make their music interesting, or at least more interesting. So, for instance, the accent violins I do despise in disco are wonderfully absent from this song, so I actually get to decide for myself what parts of the song are the exciting parts. There’s also some layering in the vocals that is more a trademark of funk than of disco.  The song shifts from a slower shuffle sort of beat to a faster upbeat pace and back in ways that disco generally doesn’t tolerate.  Actually, all those things in addition to a few unusual synthesized noises scattered hither and yon almost give “Ladies’ Night” a new wave feel that’s unusual in disco this early in the 80s.  And, hey, the song is a song for the ladies without making the ladies a target of the sexual advances of the male band.  There’s praise for the women, of course, romantic ladies and sophisticated mamas as they are, but Kool’s telling them that this night is theirs to have fun with, regardless of the attentions of the males.  To have men celebrating women as women, and not as objects, that’s pretty special for a male disco band, so kudos for that.

My life is so prearranged

LittleRiverBandCoolChangeOn 19 January, 1980, “Cool Change” by the Little River Band peaked at #10.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t take “Cool Change” by the Little River Band seriously.  It’s not that it’s so painfully earnest, though that helps.  No, it’s because of one line… here it is:

Well, I was born in the sign of water
And it’s there that I feel my best
The albatross and the whales they are my brothers

You see, the albatross is his brother.  The albatross, that elegant, graceful, noble bird that carries no other cultural baggage that might, you know, detract from the smooth, sexy, saxy, ambience of this really serious song.  I mean, really, do they not actually have albatrosses in Australia?  It’s not like they needed a three-syllable bird to fit the music here.

From door to door and house to house

JeffStarshipJaneOn 19 January, 1980, “Jane” by Jefferson Starship peaked at #14.

Few classic rock bands can do what The Beatles did:  start out strong and popular and continually reinvent themselves while increasingly getting better and smarter as they go.  Instead, most top-tier bands start out strong and innovative, lose the innovation part and become simply solid if repetitive, and then either call it quits or peter out in a whimper of embarrassingly trite dreck.  Very few bands signal each stage the way Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship did by literally changing their name every time they deteriorated in quality.  1980 finds them as Jefferson Starship, in their solid but not particularly impressive stage, performing the guitar-laden cowbell rocker “Jane“.

For what it’s worth, this is the style of classic rock that Foreigner and Journey were aspiring to recreate, and bands like Def Leppard were using as a launching point for creating metal.  “Jane” falls just this side of the line that delineates hard rock, what with its gentle lead-in keyboard, which meant it was going to get some mainstream radio play as well and being featured on the rock stations on the left side of the AM dial.  It was enough mainstream radio play to get “Jane” all the way into the top 15 — no mean feat amid all the generic disco and easy listening clogging up the airwaves.

“Jane” has a little bit of charm to it beyond its obvious rockingness.  It’s about a guy who thinks a girl’s playing hard-to-get, which in of itself isn’t all that special.  But the variation in the tone of the music complements the story nicely enough to make it feel like an actual story.  That gentle lead-in suggests this guy isn’t just frustrated with Jane because she’s not putting out — it suggests that there’s genuine sentiment underneath all that leather-clad angst.  And the little dancy interlude that starts at 1:40, about all those nights they were spending together because she didn’t know better… doesn’t it sound like suddenly the song has moved to a discotheque where those nights together took place?  It’s cleverer than the standard rockin’ angst song of its time, and for that it’s memorable.

The inspiration, the ladies’ delight

tom-johnston-savannah-nights-warner-bros-2.jpgOn 19 January, 1980, “Savannah Nightsby Tom Johnston peaked at #50.

Often an artist will leave a band for a solo career exploring all sorts of music that, as part of a band with a brand, that musician couldn’t really experiment with.  That’s not what’s going on with Tom Johnston.  No, Tom Johnston wandered off from the Doobie Brothers to make music that sounds a lot like the Doobie Brothers; “Savannah Nights” is no exception.  I’m not complaining, though:  the Doobie Brothers sound is infectious.  It’s smarter and better crafted than most other light rock, and it’s hard to not want to get up and dance when you hear that characteristic smooth brassy funk sound.  “Savannah Nights” has a particularly swank breakdown starting around 2:24 that makes my spine want to slip and glide.  Lyrically, it’s about a smooth operator picking up a shy chick at a dance club in Georgia (sure, why not?).  He’s a much smoother (and faster, and funkier) version of the guy in Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”  Come to think of it, why were people even listening to “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” when they could have been listening to “Savannah Nights”?  Perhaps there’s only so much room in the public consciousness for music that sounds like the Doobie Brothers; they had five top-40 hits in 1979 and 1980, which is rather a lot for such an immediately recognizable band.

Your love won’t pay my bills

the-flying-lizards-money-virginOn 19 January, 1980, “Money (That’s What I Want)” by The Flying Lizards peaked at #50.

Before you listen to “Money (That’s What I Want)” by The Flying Lizards, you have to listen to the original version by Barrett Strong; otherwise nothing I say about this song will make sense.

OK, now you’ve gone and done that, listen to The Flying Lizards version.

At this point you’re probably wondering what you just heard.  From the first clanging drumbeats to the slightly flat twangs of a melody all the way through the cold, mechanical delivery of the lyrics, you’re probably thinking that this is the absolute opposite of the Barrett Strong version of the song.  You’re absolutely right:  this is anti-soul.  Synthesizers have gotten a reputation for being soulless and robotic, and musicians like Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire, who pioneered their use as the driving element in something approaching popular music, didn’t do the instrument any favors.  Hard rockers saw the synthesizer as, well, synthetic, and disco boys and girls thought the sounds they made too flat and dull to be worth dancing to.  Given the state of electronic music in the last 70s, it was hard to argue with them.  So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

That’s what the Flying Lizards did.  They embraced the  criticisms of electronic music and declared that even with with instrumentation settling into the uncanny valley, a great song would still be great, and the instrumental weirdness would give a new quality to the song’s meaning.  Make it all the weirder with the main vocals delivered in a cold calculating manner by someone trying hard to sound like Zsa Zsa Gabor, background vocals delivered by a Weimaraner with a bad cold, and have a bridge that sounds like all the instruments are falling apart, and you have a nasty but catchy critique of capitalism run rampant.  Does Barrett Strong really sound like the kind of person who is bent on making money at any cost?  Of course not!  He’s got too much soul!  But someone who wants to be Zsa Zsa Gabor?  Listen to her spit out “Just give me money!”  That’s soulless acquisitiveness.

Now… imagine a whole album that sounds like this.  It would be intolerable, wouldn’t it?  Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the Flying Lizards.  What worked as a brilliant idea for a charting novelty song gets very very tiresome when it’s stretched to ten songs in a row, including covers of “Summertime Blues” and “Mandelay Song”.  As a counter-cultural protest movement, the Flying Lizards were critically acclaimed.  As a chart sensation, they outstayed their welcome quickly and floated off to obscurity.  And unlike Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, and other challenging art bands of the time that never had much popular traction, they weren’t creative enough to accumulate a core underground fanbase to keep them going.  So they remain a curious novelty, but clearly one that had something of zeitgeist value; “Money (That’s What I Want)” has shown up on a surprising number of retro movie soundtracks, including The Wedding Singer and Charlie’s Angels.

She said she don’t love me anymore

Peter_Brown_-_StargazerOn 19 January, 1980, “Stargazer” by Peter Brown peaked at #59.

I get the feeling that for the few months that people remembered “Stargazer” by Peter Brown, it was a popular pick for prom slow dances and maybe even first dances at weddings.  Not that it’s an appropriate song for budding romance or for a lifelong commitment — it’s about a woman who gives up on her stargazer boyfriend because he’s too distant and complicated for her to figure out, let alone live with.  But it’s got that sway from side to side slow jam feel to it that makes it perfect dark-room-illuminated-only-by-motes-of-light-from-the-disco-ball dance floor fodder that more creative DJs would bring out when they’ve gotten totally sick of the more obvious options that get girls to get their more awkward, or macho, boyfriends out onto the dance floor.  It has a little bit of that oily cheese feeling that so many desperate love songs have, and I kind of get the sense that Peter Brown is trying really hard to convince everyone he’s Freddy Mercury…

…and yet I kinda like it.  It doesn’t sound like any of the other slow songs we’ve had to deal with up to now, and it’s not in that super-polished perfect tone that makes so much popular music too slip.  I actually feel that Peter Brown is torn between the agony of losing his girl and being the stargazer dreamer whatever-he-is that he is.  You can tell from how he’s singing that he’s going to call her bluff (assuming it’s a bluff) and be the guy he is, not the guy she wants him to be.  He’s his own man, and you can hear him walking off — alone — into the moonlight, even if she does secretly want one last dance with him.


Smiling in the night

EW&F StarOn 19 January, 1980, “Star by Earth, Wind, and Fire peaked at #64.

Another song about a star, and, dipping back a bit, another funk song.  Earth, Wind, and Fire are a little more adventurous than your standard funk band, and “Star” is a good example of how.  “Star” is perky and upbeat.  It makes you want to dance, but it doesn’t tell you exactly how to.  The beat’s a little choppy, the vocal delivery is certainly unorthodox, what with its speedy delivery and unusual willingness unnatural pauses in the middles of phrases, and the pace is faster than a stroll, but slower than disco.  It’s a hopeful, happy song, too, talking about how the stars are playful but beneficent.  My only complaint is that it doesn’t sound like the stargazing the singers are singing about.  When they’re singing about how they can feel the dark, I keep feeling that the music is bright and sunny.  So nothing offensive here, just a mismatch between the lyrics and the content of the song.

Dancing in the strange light

DollarShootingStar.pngOn 19 January, 1980, “Shooting Starby Dollar peaked at #74.

Every genre, no matter how much I like or dislike them, will have its high points and its low points.  I’ve already celebrated some Southern rock and a rap song, two genres I generally don’t like.  Now it’s time to speak ill of some new wave; namely “Shooting Star” by a really wimpy British band called Dollar.

Dollar had a handful of hits in Britain, starting with “Shooting Star” in 1978.  For some reason, it took over a year for “Shooting Star” to show up on the charts Stateside.  Meanwhile, Dollar had three more hit singles in the UK, and then had another two albums that sound even new wavier than this song does.  But with a year-long gap between releases on the two sides of the Atlantic, and a lackluster #74 peak for this, the American market picked up on livelier and better new wave before Dollar had another chance.

“Shooting Star” isn’t awful; it’s just unremarkable.  It’s about, well… friendly dancing aliens on a comet or something.  The music is suitably space agey, but understated enough to be unmemorable.  The singing is mediocre — not that poor singing completely dooms a song, but it needs to be accompanied by something truly memorable.  So this is a scant serving of meh, filling the space between disco and easy listening songs.  Not much to see here.