Overview of 1 March 1980

The songs that peaked in the week of 1 March are (except for one) a really uninspiring bunch.  Brace yourself…

Apprehending all my criminal need

WaldenShouldaLovedYa.pngYou almost certainly don’t know Narada Michael Walden for “I Shoulda Loved Ya“, which got to #66 this week; you know him for his production work with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Jermaine Stewart, and a host of other R&B musicians, about which we’ll reserve judgment until they peak later in the 80s.  Listening to “I Shoulda Loved Ya”, it sounds like it belongs in the top twenty tracks of 1987, what with its heavy focus on saxophone, and handclaps urging you to do that mid-80s lurchy dance from side to side. The bass solo in the middle sort of pulls you back to the very late 70s, but all in all, this feels like it slipped through a time warp to warn us of what was to come:  “Do something now or EVERYTHING on the radio will sound like this!”  Actually, I’m being too harsh — this is at least perky and refreshing.  I wish the lyrics were a bit more coherent, because the theme of a guy who realizes he’s mistreated someone he’d been seeing is underutilized (maybe because most musicians don’t want to empathize with cads) and far more interesting than all these guys chasing women who aren’t interested in them, or, worse, so achingly in love with the person they’re with.

Just one lover is all you need to know

TurleyRichardYouMightNeed.pngOr there’s achy, preachy earnestness, like “You Might Need Somebody” by Turley Richards (#54), which ambles in like your junior-high art teacher walking up to you to scold you after some other authority figure broke up a fight.  Only Turley is here to berate you for… what, being anti-social?  The message here is to let someone into your heart, as if most people didn’t want that to begin with, and, really, the few people who don’t aren’t going to reconsider their self-isolation just because someone tells them that everyone needs someone around.  Gee thanks, tell us something we didn’t already know, and try to do it with less somnolent instrumentation.

Travelling down that lonesome road

molly-hatchet-flirtin-with-disaster-1979-front-cover-57732.jpgI’ve never knowingly listened to Molly Hatchet before, and I’d always wondered why Ray Stevens referenced them in”Erik the Awful”.  Looking at their mythologically Teutonic alum covers, I simply assumed that they were a good-spirited heavy metal or glam band.  Nope, they’re southern rock, which explains the Ray Stevens reference, if not the album covers. “Flirtin’ with Disaster” (#42) is pretty much what I expect when I think of southern rock…  mildly rebellious nasal vocals, fast-paced twangy guitars, with a solid solo, and… not much else.  This is what the US was listening to instead of Motorhead — who really knew how to rock — and it’s hard to say we were better for it.

Some things are not better left unsaid

NicoletteLetMeGo.pngI understand that there are lyrics to “Let Me Go, Love“, (#35) but when Nicolette Larson and Michael McDonald sing it, it’s hard to tell, because they sort of mumble the words over each other’s very idiosyncratic voice, so the result sounds like two people warbling alphabet soup out loud in a humid room.  Listen to how “look” sounds like “Luke” in “you’ve got that look in your eyes” and you’ll get an idea of what I mean; all the vowels in this song are a little bit nonstandard, and the result is decidedly alien.  Musically, it’s lazy dreamy, and a little bit jazzy, and not entirely uninteresting. I think this would have been better as a Herb Alpert-like instrumental without the vocals.

I’ll take control of your beautiful mind

CommodoresWonderland.pngWonderland” by The Commodores (#25) is one of those soul songs that can’t decide whether it wants to be sexy or creepy.  The singer’s approach — reassuring the woman he’s met that she’s lucky to meet him, that she shouldn’t be afraid, that he’ll take control of her, that any minute that passes may make the whole endeavor of seduction for naught — reeks of desperation, but that promise of being taken off to a magical wonderland of love sounds so enticing doesn’t it?  If it weren’t for the taxi driver, one might expect the song to turn out to be an episode in a serial murderer’s modus operandi.  Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to turn out that way, and the music is suitably trippy and smooth, so I’ll give it a wary pass on the creepiness.

I suppose I should give “September Morn” by Neil Diamond (#17) its own entry, but I won’t like it.

Let me smell the moon in your perfume

ForbertRomeo.pngTake a good look at Steve Forbert.  Does he look familiar?  If he does, you were probably watching MTv in 1983, not because his videos were showing, but because he had a cameo role in one of 1983’s most memorable videos:  he was Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend in “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”.  Before that, here in 1980, he just missed the top ten with his sweetly lilting “Romeo’s Tune” (#11).  It’s really hard to write a song that sounds and feels both intelligent and innocent without sounding fake or cynical; Steve Forbert has done that here and, looking at what was in the top ten when “Romeo Tune” peaked, he deserved to be in the top ten. He avoids simple clichés, but delivers lines that sound like fresh clichés, turns of phrase — those southern kisses and smelling the moon — that feel like he discovered them instead of created them.  The scene with the king and queen feels like a young adult in love discovering his recently outgrown youth, couching it in the imagery of his childhood fairy tales, but recognizing the need to be staid and boring when adulthood calls.  And the jaunty piano tune and the sweet backup singers emphasize the quiet excitement of not-so-young love.  In a way, this song is too good… how can a musician follow up on it?  And Forbert didn’t.  A dispute with his record company didn’t help, but generally it’s hard to shake the overshadowing effect of a single break-out hit; several other musicians I can think of (and will write about) have had similar flame-outs, and it’s a shame when the charts are so consistently filled with otherwise mediocre stuff. .

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Glad you’re goin’ my way

SmokeyRobinsonCruisin.pngOn 23 February, 1980, “Cruisin‘” by Smokey Robinson peaked at #4.

There’s a lot of lame music out there, and I’ve ben really obnoxious about it here.  I’ve railed against clumsy word choice, musical tone that doesn’t match the words, and overly-polished vocals, and I’m unapologetic about it.  But sometimes all those things don’t matter and you get a song that shouldn’t work but does.  That’s the case with “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson.

Smokey Robinson just has one of those perfect voices; I’m sure he could sing “Anarchy in the UK” and send chills up your spine with its smoothness.  But in his element, he’s impeccable, putting the soul into soul.  Here on “Cruisin'” he’s covering similar ground as “I Second That Emotion”.  Actually, “Cruisin'” could almost be a sequel to “I Second That Emotion.”  In the earlier song, he sings about how he wants to love, not lust, how he wants a girl to be with him now and forever.  It’s sensual and sexy, but sincere and wholesome all at the same time.  Here, on “Cruisin'” it’s as if he’s got that girl, and they are together, and he’s singing about how wonderful it is that he has the now and the future; he’s in lust and in love, and it’s good for everyone involved.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, and sure, the lyrics aren’t anything too special, but the whole package is special.

There are no reasons

BoomtownMondaysOn 23 February, 1980, “I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats peaked at #73.

On 29 January 1979, Brenda Spencer, at the time 16, opened the window to her home and fired thirty .22 caliber bullets at people outside on Cleveland Elementary School in Dan Diego, California with a Ruger automatic rifle. She killed two adults and wounded another adult and eight children. The gun was a gift from her father, despite the fact that she had been recommended for admittance to a mental hospital.  When asked by a journalist why she had done it, she said, “I Don’t Like Mondays”.  Bob Geldof heard about the story and in response wrote and recorded “I Don’t Like Mondays” with The Boomtown Rats.  I don’t remember the shooting or the song from my childhood; I was three.

I do remember Laurie Dann, however.  She lived in Winnetka, Illinois, not far from where I lived; she was similarly disturbed.  On 20 May 1988, she delivered packages of arsenic-laced food to a host of her acquaintances, tried to set a school on fire, and tried to murder two children and their mother by setting their house on fire. She then drove to Hubbard Woods Elementary School with three guns, went on an inept shooting spree inside.  She killed two children and wounded four others.  She then fled, taking refuge in a house, where she eventually shot and wounded one of the residents before shooting herself.

This sort of story seems to happen more and more often as I get older.  I doubt it’s because the press are more willing to report on it.  It seems to me instead that there seem to be more crazy people around, and for whatever reason, they’re getting their hands on guns.  It’s hard to go on from here, really.  What do you say after discussing crazy people shooting kids?  You can’t really expect crazy people not to do crazy things with the weapons they find.  Given that she tried poisoning people before she went to Hubbard Woods armed to the teeth, Laurie Dann would have knifed her way through that school if she had to.  Instead, it’s the responsibility of those of us who aren’t crazy to do our best to keep guns (and knives) out of the hands of crazy people, and to make sure that crazy people are under enough care that they can’t act on their paranoid impulses.  This, I think, may be the biggest flaw in the American collective psyche:  we have our rights and guard them vociferously, and rightly, but we are irresponsible with them, too often failing to shoulder the burden of responsibilities that go along with those rights.  I was angered by “Voice of Freedom” in my last post, and this is part of the reason why:  it blithely ignored American responsibilities that go along with being the land of the free and the home of the brave.

So, there’s a song to talk about:  “I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats.  I think Bob Geldof did an amazing job of handling a horrifying subject without sentimentalizing it or being offensive.  He tells the story as it happened, pointing out that when the silicon chip in someone’s head overloads, reason goes by the wayside and anything can and often will happen.  Musically, it’s liltingly beautiful, which makes it all the more haunting and touching, and the details are generic enough that every time another Sandy Hook shooting hits the headlines, the song is eerily appropriate.  Timeless and judgmental without overtly taking sides:  a fine craftsman or artist cannot hope for a more resilient legacy.  Long after everyone forgets about his charity work trying to feed the starving millions in Africa, long after most of the other songs of 1980 aren’t even memories, people will still listen to “I Don’t Like Mondays”.

 

Overview of 23 February 1980

23 February 1980 is a short week, with only seven songs hitting their peak:

 It ain’t love but it ain’t bad

JohnCougarSmallParadise.jpgJohn Cougar Melloncamp’s made a career out of angsty earnestness, and “Small Paradise” (#87) is an attempt in kind that doesn’t quite hit the mark.  It feels like it’s trying to be epic, but it’s hard to be epic with only two verses; do we have enough time to feel much for the veteran lovers whose hearts are warm despite their ears being cold?  Do we care if the girl John thinks he knows is actually the girl he thinks he knows when we don’t get another verse about her?  “Small Paradise” doesn’t feel finished, and we don’t know enough about the bar to know whether calling it a small paradise is irony or honesty.  One more verse, maybe we could have gotten another 20 places on the charts.

“I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats at #73 warrants its own page.

You can say we’re conceited

JimKirkVoiceofFreedom.jpgYou would think if you wanted to foist a jingoistic single on the world, you would try to time it to your country’s independence day.  Independence Day in the USA is July Fourth; Jim Kirk’s grating bombastic bit of national chauvinism — “Voice of Freedom” — peaked in February at #71.  Perhaps he was hoping to perform it at the Super Bowl.  The lyrics are so cringe-inducing that it’s sometimes hard to tell if “Voice of Freedom” is meant as an ironic bit of satire that hit so close to its target as to be indistinguishable.  Lyrics like the part where the TM singers boldly announce without a hint of sorrow that a lot of their friends have died for freedom really make me wonder.  But even the most craven satirist wouldn’t juxtapose lyrics about treasuring the freedom of speech with lyrics insisting that schools teach kids religion.  I’m all for freedom, but this song isn’t about freedom; it’s about forcing a particular set of values on an unsuspecting world.  Call us conceited, indeed; this song is the sort of thing that make other free societies — the UK, Sweden, France — wonder where our sense of perspective went out of whack.  I don’t know which is more surprising, that “Voice of Freedom” got into the Hot 100 at all or that it didn’t climb higher.

That six and one

TavaresBadTimes.jpg In slot #47, there’s Tavares, who in 1976 were worried that heaven might be missing an angel, but here are only trying to make ends meet in “Bad Times“.  This is a hard thing to doconvincingly when your ensemble sounds smoother than vanilla, and as a result, the lyrics to this song feel largely superficial.  There’s the occasional atonal flourish that tries to ground the frustrated lyrics with the disco, but all in all, it’s not really enough to make for an urban blight anthem.  Still, it sounds nice, and it’s certainly danceable.

I get all choked up inside

BonniePointerCan'tHelp.jpgBonnie Pointer of the Pointer Sisters had something of a solo career, of which “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” (#40) is an unfortunate reminder.  It’s a breathy, hyperactive disco interpretation of the doo-wop classic by The Four Tops that makes you want to take Quaaludes.  Bonnie extracts all the soul out of it, straining to keep pace with the racing tempo, and instead of the tension of a frustrated lover, I hear the anxiety of maybe not turning the lyrics sheet in time.  Even the bell and staccato blurting sax solos don’t really add anything necessary to this version.  Seriously, go listen to The Four Tops.

There’s a light in your eye that keeps shining

Led-Zeppelin-Fool-In-The-Rain-189812Leave it to Led Zeppelin to construct something that grabs a listener’s attention with something that just sounds different. In this case it’s “Fool in the Rain“, which landed at #21.  I suspect that this high performance has a lot to do with the fact that it’s Led Zeppelin, a very popular established act, than the quality of the song.  Don’t get me wrong, I really like what I’m hearing, but I’m surprised that a listening public that put Captain & Tennille on the top of the charts would have time for something as challenging as this.  Let’s just call it the Fleetwood Mac phenomenon; people will tolerate unusual music from a band that’s already got a history of hits behind them.  Anyway, the classic rock samba interlude in the middle, sounding like someone crawling with fleas, is quite a cacophonous revelation, and jibes well with the frustration that a neglected lover would have, feverishly seeing his girl only in his dreams.  It’s ambiguous whether his being on the wrong block is a shaggy dog story — listen to this funny story, babe — or whether it’s an existential thing that he’s dating the wrong girl.  Whichever, it’s a rousing revelation of an ending, and I feel good for him, whatever it is he’s realized in the end.

And then there’s “Cruisin'” by Smokey Robinson, at #4, which also deserves its own page.

 

Kiss me like you just did

CaptTennilleOneMoreTimeOn 16 February, 1980, “Do That to Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille peaked at #1.

Here we are again, at the top of the charts.  You may be thinking, “Wait, that was quick!”  You’re right, it is quick:  “Do That to Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille only stayed at #1 for a week.  I can only guess that it’s because the title doesn’t pass the giggle test; sure, it’s a kiss she wants… sure… but everyone under the age of 40 is hoping for all sorts of double entendre to slink out above the liquid nothing that passes for a melody on this track.  If you’re one of those puerile-minded (like me), you’ll be sadly disappointed. Ironically, there won’t be one more time for Captain & Tennille, at least not in the top 40. F rom here on out, their singles will wallow in the 50s and below.

There is one thing worth mentioning about this song:  this is the first time an electronic wind instrument hit the charts.  That solo in the middle (thanks, Wikipedia!) is a Lyricon.  I didn’t even know such a thing was possible until 1997 when I saw Trevor Horn playing something similar live during an Art of Noise concert.  Science is wonderful, Captain & Tennille aren’t, and we’ll do it one more time with the week of 23 February soon.

Folks just called him yellow

220px-Kenny_rogers-coward_of_the_county_sOn 16 February, 1980, “Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers peaked at #3.

I was pretty harsh on Kenny Rogers the first time he got a crack at the Hot 100 in 1980.  Here he is, with a much higher-placed single, “Coward of the County“, and… I won’t be as harsh.  I’m still going to pan it, but not because of Kenny Rogers as a performer.

So, first let’s talk about Kenny Rogers in this song.  Kenny’s fine.  Not great, but fine.  The song calls for that sit-down-here-son-so’s-I-can-spin-you-a-tale avuncular voice, and he does that just fine:  distant enough to tell the story cogently, but emotive enough to let you know how he feels about it.  Musically, it’s nothing special apart from several needless dramatic key changes:  typical loping country that you can put any kind of down-home wisdom like, oh, “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash.  So nothing special, nothing really awful.

But the story.  I get the message of being a good person — a good Christian, if you take the “turn the other cheek” reference seriously, which most Americans would — and I get the message of being pushed too far by horrible people.  But did we have to go as far as gang rape?  I mean, I’m not against having sex or violence come up in music, but I am against it coming up needlessly, and having the three Gaitlin boys have their way with Becky seems gratuitous.  I don’t need my easy ramblin’ country music suddenly turning into a Cormac McCarthy novel on me. And then we get the vigilante justice thing, of which we really have too much in the US.  I don’t know if Tommy kills the Gaitlin boys.  He may not; just because he brought his gun along with him doesn’t mean he used it.  But even still, the whole thing puts a bad taste in my mouth.  There are courts for this!

Getting back to Cormac McCarthy and Johnny Cash.  Cormac McCarthy puts violence and vigilante justice into his books, but he doesn’t celebrate it — he makes it gritty and awful, and usually more costly than it’s worth.  Johnny Cash, in “A Boy Named Sue”, flirts with vigilante justice, but it’s clearly satire.  In “Coward of the Country” I can’t help but feel that there’s some glorification of retribution, and that doesn’t sit well for me.