Someone will be waiting down the line

DrHookBetterLove.pngOn 26 January, 1980, “Better Love Next Time” by Dr. Hook peaked at #12.

All right! Dr. Hook!  It’s about time we got some down and dirty delta blues funk on… .Let’s crank up youtube and get this “Better Love Next Time” track going…

What the heck?  This is not delta blues.  This is washed-out easy listening.

Of course, I was thinking of Dr. John, not Dr. Hook, and let me tell you, that’s a rude awakening.  Not that “Better Love Next Time” is a particularly bad song, it’s just not what I was expecting.  At all.  Instead of doing some zydeco stomping around dusty wood-paneled floors in some rugged dive bar on the wrong side of town, here we are smoothly traipsing over a parquet dance floor at a very very white disco between a slow song and something faster.

Whatever, though this song isn’t musically interesting (well, a little — the reduced chord progression toward the end of the chorus adds a darker tone to the song than the gentle bubbling of the rest of it would lead you to expect) the lyrics are at least a wry bit of wordplay.  And unlike “Chiquiquita”, which I scathed before, I actually get the sense that Dr. Hook cares about how sad his friend feels, and wants to share in his/her misery and recovery.  So, as lame easy listening music goes, this isn’t all that bad, but I’d much rather be listening to Dr. John.

That’s more than I should ask

H&OWaitForMe.pngOn 26 January, 1980, “Wait For Me” by Hall & Oates peaked at #18.

I’ll admit that Hall & Oates is often a guilty pleasure for me.  It may be because I lived in Philadelphia for a while — one usually picks up on the local popular culture and adopts it as one’s own — but by the time I was in Philly, Hall & Oates were no longer dominating the local charts, let alone the national ones. It may be because so much of their music sounds the same, and two of Hall & Oates’s biggest hits were on the radio when I was first absorbing music that was new (more of that when we get to 1982).  It may be because they are musically inoffensive, yet often more intelligent than their peers.  I can’t explain it.

And “Wait For Me” doesn’t help me explain it.  This is about as pedestrian as a pop song can get without actually pandering to its audience; right down to the insipid la-la-las, this song is doing everything it can to be musical margarine; it doesn’t add all that much to your environment and it won’t stick to your ribs, but it sure helps everything go down more smoothly.  So, is it great?  No.  Is it OK?  Sure. Did it deserve to go to #18?  Heck no!  But it’s fair filler between actually good singles in the Hall & Oates catalogue, even if it means we have to wait until mid-1981 to actually hear those.

This is a real rise morning

HerbAlpertRotationOn 26 January, 1980, “Rotation” by Herb Alpert peaked at #30.

I feel kind of bad for radio DJs in the last weeks of 1979 and early weeks of 1980.  They had two Herb Alpert songs drifting around the top 40 — “Rotation” and “Rise” (which I covered a few entries back) — which means they must have had to play one or the other more or less every hour and a half or so.  That’s far too much Herb Alpert for normal people to be exposed to.

It’s not that Herb is particularly bad, it’s just that there’s only so much pointless noodling one can take.  His instrumentals don’t really get much of anywhere, and that’s particularly true of “Rotation”.  It’s an uninspiring credit-roll synthesizer rhythm backing track over which Herb plays a trumpet with no particular goal in mind and without a particularly interesting journey along the way.  Just aimless drifty blares that are about as nutritious to your ears as caramel is to your digestive system — pleasant but lacking in substance.

She’ll never let you down; she’ll never fool around

QuatroShe'sInLoveOn 26 January, 1980, “She’s in Love With You” by Suzi Quatro peaked at #41.

There isn’t much I can say about “She’s in Love With You“; it’s a pretty straightforward power pop song that Suzi Quatro delivers well… she’s a decent rocker and a decent singer, not so polished as to sound fake but polished enough that she’s listenable.  The lyrics take a sidestep from the traditional love song.  You see, this one is told from the point of view of the girl’s friend.  Lyrics that would sound pathetic and demeaning sung in the first person are an earnest, friendly warning when sung in the third person.  Beyond that, there’s not all that much here to surprise or amaze.  I’m pleasantly surprised, but not excited by it.  Perhaps the most surprising thing is that “She’s in Love With You” nearly cracked the top 40.  Whatever, it’s a nice song to hear once or twice, but it’s not particularly memorable.

London, you’re my home

Inmates.pngOn 26 January, 1980, “Dirty Water” by The Inmates peaked at #51.

This is how you don’t do a cover song.  Clearly The Inmates really liked the gritty depiction of Boston in “Dirty Water” and felt that the dank riverside, frustrated women, and hints at the career of a serial killer resonated for people living through London during the recession of the late 70s.  I think, though, that their appreciation went a bit too far because their performance is only superficially different from the original by the Standells.  Sure the tempo is different and the instrumentation is kind of different, but all in all, it’s a straight-up homage with not enough variation to justify the remake.  Even the snarling vocal delivery is the same.  Why listen to this when you can listen to The Standells?

Every time I call and you’re not there

LeifMemorizeOn 26 January, 1980, “Memorize Your Number” by Leif Garrett peaked at #60.

It’s rare that an actor-turned-musician has a memorable music career, and it’s even rarer when that actor is a child actor, so I fully expected Leif Garrett’s “Memorize Your Number” to be a total turkey.  I expected the sickly-sweet love ballads one usually gets from drug-fuelled heartthrobs whose greedy managers (or parents) decided they should press a record.

But hey, it turns out that drug-fuelled heartthrobs can occasionally put out a rockin’ power pop single.  This has got an angsty itchy rhythm guitar driving a similarly angst-riddled vocal about… well, I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, but it’s clearly a relationship on the rocks.  Is Leif trying not to fall in love?  He doesn’t want to memorize her number, and he’s already predicting not only living with this girl, but also breaking up with her a year later and telling her that she’s the one who messed it up.  So, yeah, he’s just met this girl and he’s already jaded about how the relationship is going to go, with all its jealousies and disappointments.  That’s pretty heavy for a guy who was about to turn 18.  (He was also about to get into a car crash that crippled his best friend, but hey, responsibility sucks.)  So, while this song is not exactly great shakes, it’s a bit more adventurous and edgy than one would expect from a guy whose music career was supposed to make 13-year-old girls the nation over swoon at the very hint of his honeyed voice.  This is a mature song and a pretty risky recording; Leif didn’t shy from risky behavior in his personal life (and sadly, still doesn’t as of his 2010 drug possession arrest) and it’s a good thing he didn’t in his venture into music.

Sulphur smoke up in the sky

BuffettVolcanoOn 26 January, 1980, “Volcano” by Jimmy Buffett peaked at #66.

I guess if I complain about the Billboard charting songs all sounding the same, I have to be prepared to appreciate something like “Volcano” by Jimmy Buffett.  Don’t misunderstand me:  I find Jimmy Buffett infuriatingly insipid.  But I will grant that his tropical noodling sounds nothing like anything else I’ve talked about so far, and in that regard, it’s refreshing. It’s not a love song, or a lost love song, or even a loneliness song; it’s just a goofy song about an impending volcano eruption and what the islanders threatened by it are considering doing about it.  I can only think of one other song about a dangerous volcano eruption, and it isn’t nearly as happy as this one.

And really, the lyrics to this are kinda fun, even if they are delivered over silly tropical musical nonsense.  There’s a groaner of a pun on “lava”, and there’s all the places that the native doesn’t want to end up, which includes a list of a few places famous for music styles in which that Jimmy Buffett doesn’t write:  New York City, Mexico, and Nashville.  There’s even a call out to each of Three Mile Island and Ayatollah Khomeini, which doesn’t happen often in pop music.  So, okay, Jimmy, I’ll grant it to you, you were doing something special in the late 70s.  I may not have liked it, but at least it was a unique influence on the charts.

Accept me for what I am

JWarnes Don'tMakeMeOver.pngOn 26 January, 1980, “Don’t Make Me Over” by Jennifer Warnes peaked at #67.

Let’s talk about cover songs, because I sure don’t want to talk about “Don’t Make Me Over” by Jenifer Warnes any more than I have to.  The first thing you need to know is that this is a cover of a Burt Bacharach song originally performed by Dionne Warwick.  In fact it’s Dionne Warwick’s first song, and she pushed it all the way to #21.  Jennifer Warnes got it to #67, which is still pretty good, but clearly it’s not the song itself that’s the hit.  Unlike Don McLean’s “American Pie” which not even a dreadful Madonna interpretation could keep out of the top 40 (even without a commercial release in the States!), this song needs a good performance to be a big hit.  And Jennifer Warnes doesn’t do that.

Doing a cover of a song is tough.  Ideally, an artist will do the song justice; this involves performing the song similarly enough to the original that listeners will recognize it, take it seriously, and respect it… but it also involves doing something new to the song that reinterprets it in a way that adds value.  Otherwise, why listen to the cover, if you can listen to the (better) original?  Jennifer Warnes fails to add anything new and worthwhile to “Don’t Make Me Over”.  Her voice can’t compete with Dionne Warwick’s and though this interpretation takes out that late-50s angelic choir of backup singers, it doesn’t add anything musically that makes this version memorable.

There’s really only one thing that Jennifer Warnes did right — she chose to redo a song that had largely faded in people’s memories.  If “American Pie” had not been such the cultural touchstone of American music that it is, maybe Madonna could have gotten away with her treacly-sweet music box version of it because fewer people would remember the original.  But no, people remember Don McLean’s version and castigated Madonna, rightly, for debasing a good song.  Jennifer Warnes picked a much less beloved song.  I doubt many of her listeners had heard Dionne Warwick’s version even once since 1970, so few people were likely to have been actively comparing her to Warwick.  That doesn’t excuse her inability to do anything interesting with the song.  Madonna may have murdered “American Pie”, but her version was, at least, interesting in its badness.  Warnes’s “Don’t Make Me Over” is just forgettable.

You got to leave this town

JourneyTooLtaeOn 26 January, 1980, “Too Late” by Journey peaked at #90.

I don’t often think critically about Journey, mainly because I’m not convinced there’s much there to be thinking about, and “Too Late” isn’t doing the band much service in changing my opinion.  It was a perfectly competent ballad for the romantic roller skating crowd, and even has a halfway-interesting guitar solo, but the package as a whole just comes off as, well, nondescript.  It’s about someone leaving a small town because there’s too much baggage there.  Who knows where they’re going or why, or what anybody else thinks about it, other than that it’s not too late yet, and hey, that’s a good enough idea for a song if ever there was one.  Never mind that this sort of get-out-of-Dodge running-from-your-past maneuver probably works a lot better in music than it does in real life, in music you don’t have to worry about the consequences, not if you’re just trying to fill out an album with some tracks that will tie together the two big singles.  You see, “Too Late” is the fourth single off of Evolution — their second album that did anything notable on the charts.  We all know how second albums are, and we all know how those later singles off those second albums are, so it would be unrealistic to have many expectations for this song; it’s actually kind of a miracle that this charted at all, even if at only #70.