You go up, down, jump around

the_romantics_-_what_i_like_about_you On 22 March 1980, “What I Like About You” peaked at #49.

Before I talk about what I like about “What I Like About You“, I want to talk about one-hit wonders.  The reason why, is because many people remember The Romantics as a one hit wonder, and they think that one hit was “What I Like About You”.  But, I argue that this is wrong on two scores:  first, the band had more than one hit, and second, neither of its hits were “What I Like About You”.

But to have this discussion, we have to talk about categorization, because otherwise we’ll just be saying, “Yes it is because I feel it is,” “No it’s not because I feel it’s not.”  I’ll try to make the discussion entertaining.

The term “one hit wonder” has two important words:  “one” and “hit”.  “One is pretty clear — there should be exactly one hit.  But “hit” is fuzzier because there can be a lot of standards for what makes for a hit.  We could define it in terms of sales — maybe the song has to sell a certain number of copies or earn a certain amount of money — but a problem with this definition is that the newer a song is, the more people there are to buy it.  This poses no obstacles for people like The Beatles or Madonna, who are still selling copies of their back catalogue, but it is a problem for a band like The Romantics; how many people are still buying Romantics albums, or even singles at Amazon?  We then need to turn to the pop charts as arbiters that can control for the passage of time.  The charts compare coexisting songs and take into account radio popularity and sales; they make a pretty good yardstick.

But where should one draw the line to differentiate between a hit and a near-hit?  We talk about the top 10, the top 20, the top 40, and the top 100… any one of them could serve as a cutoff.  We have to pick one or the other, more or less arbitrarily.  Picking the top 100 probably lets in a lot of songs that, frankly, shouldn’t be considered hits.  Suzanne Fellini peaked at #87 with “Love on the Phone” and never had another chart appearance; as fun as the song is, I don’t think anyone would call that a hit.  On the other hand, top 10 or 20 is probably too restrictive:  I think everyone would agree that Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” is a hit, even though it peaked at #23.  So we need a middling number, and the record industry gave it to us with top 40 radio.  40 is a nice average number — enough to fill a few hours without repeating, but enough to repeat the most popular songs multiple times a day, even with commercials.  You could argue for 30 or 50, but no matter what largeish two-digit number you choose, some worthy songs will fall short of it, and some questionable songs will make it over the bar, so why not use the number that the industry itself uses?

So top 40 is what I use to define a hit, and therefore, to be a one-hit-wonder, I say a performer needs to have exactly one song reach into the top 40.  For The Romantics, “What I Like About You” is not that song:  yeah, yeah, you know all the words because it was in Budweiser commercials in the late 80s, and as a result everyone was playing at their parties every summer that you were in college, but you probably don’t remember it from the radio in 1980.  No, the Romantics song that was undeniably a hit was 1983’s “Talking in Your Sleep” which got all the way to #3, and if that doesn’t already ring a bell, I’m sure you’ll remember it once you click the link.  Perhaps you don’t associate it with the band that made “What I Like About You” famous; that would be understandable because although “What I Like About You” is a frat-house power pop anthem, “Talking in Your Sleep” is angsty new wave and culturally feels dated.  Nonetheless, it was their big hit… but not their only hit.  In 1984, a follow-up single, “One in a Million“, went to #37.  It is much more akin to “What I Like About You” with a DIY 60s sound to it, but, at least in quality, it’s the inferior song even if it placed 12 slots higher.

So there you have it, The Romantics aren’t a one-hit wonder. There are a lot of other bands that similarly have come down in our collective memories as one hit wonders, even though they had two or more hits:  a-ha, Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds, Falco, Naked Eyes.  Technically, they’re not one hit wonders, but they feel like they are.  What makes us selectively remember their supposed one hit?  This gets at what I like about “What I Like About You”:  it has a certain style to it that makes it particularly memorable.  In this particular case, it serves as a party anthem that can stand shoulder to shoulder with other rocking songs, even if they’re veterans like Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” or a song with only two summers behind it, like Pitbull’s “Fireball“.  “What I Like About You” is straightforward and simple, but nonetheless brings something interesting to the party that makes it, perhaps intangibly, a classic.  On the other hand there are those hits that so capture the zeitgeist of a time that they completely overshadow a band’s other work.  The best example of this is a-ha’s “Take on Me“, which evokes 1985 so well that there’s no reason to remember that “The Sun Always Shines on TV” reached #20 later that year (even though I personally think “The Sun Always Shines on TV” is the better of the two).

So, in sum, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another.  A band may be a one hit wonder if they have a single song that somehow is timeless, moreso than anything else they performed… or a band may have a single song that so fundamentally captures the essence of its age that the band really didn’t need to perform anything else to be remembered.

Overview of 22 March 1980

There was a whole lot of lovin’ going on in the lower reaches of the top 100 on 22 March 1980.  Starting with…

It’s so hard when I’m feeling on fire

suzannefelliniloveonthephone… a pleasantly weird surprise.  I was expecting “Love on the Phone” by Suzanne Fellini (#87) to be, frankly, dreadful, and probably disco, but what we have, while not exactly spectacular, has a certain do-it-yourself feel that’s kind of reminiscent of early Blondie.  It’s a little bit edgy, as Suzanne suggests she get undressed while talking to her long-distance lover, and the sensualized rat-a-tat of “makin’s” toward the end aren’t exactly rated G, but really, this is pretty chaste as light punk goes; she may be talking dirty, but it’s with a boyfriend out of town.  Regardless, it’s really not like anything else we’ve heard so far, and a younger me probably would have played the heck out of this one mainly because it was different and didn’t take itself too seriously.  Still, I can’t imagine sitting through a whole album of this.

I love you, I le-ove you

engelbert-love-s-only-love-coverI’m having trouble taking “Love’s Only Love” by Engelbert Humperdinck (#83) seriously.  The sappy lounge style it’s sung in doesn’t help matters, but that just makes it bad, not ridiculous.  No, what makes this song ridiculous is the line I used for the header, which happens for the first time at 1:01:  “I love you, I le-ove you.”  I’m not doing it justice, because really, you can’t spell the word love the way Engelbert pronounces it that second time.  Not only does he make it a two-syllable word, but this love has some sort of quasi-French, or more likely, Dutch, accent to it; it sounds sort of like “loaves” without the S.  “Leeuuv”?  “Lowv”?  Whatever it is, it’s the only word in this whole song that matters, and I wonder how the backup singers don’t break up in giggles hearing it.

I don’t want to be a big star

England DanJohnFordInItForLove.pngIn some parallel universe that isn’t all that different from the one we live in, “In It for Love” by England Dan & John Ford Coley (#75) could have been the theme song for a prime-time sit-com.  It has the kind of perky, faux-lounge keyboard that would easily serve as backing to a montage of clips introducing a handful of family members (and the quirky neighbor couple that lives next door).  And really, “In it for Love” wouldn’t be a bad name for a family-oriented comedy series.  That said, with precious few exceptions, it’s hard to take sit com themes seriously as real music, and anything that sounds like them is, by association, pretty forgettable.

It hurts so much more in the night

starland-vocalloving-you-with-my-eyesThe Starland Vocal Band is the band that made having sex during the daytime something naughty, or at least highlighted that peculiarity in “Afternoon Delight”.  So perhaps it’s only natural to expect that musicians with such a narrow range of sexual options would also produce sappy maple-syrup suffused schlock like “Loving You With My Eyes” (#71).  The woman in the song may actually be something of a martyr — she promises not to cry if her guy comes back, even if it’s to say goodbye, but it drips so heavily with overwrought sentiment that it makes my teeth hurt.  Perhaps it’s the vocal; a woman with this sweet a voice sounds like someone who can be hurt easily.  I’m imagining a gravelly-voiced singer, like Kim Carnes, Marianne Faithfull, or Grace Slick, singing this; when a tough woman feels this way, it’s much more believable.

We’re both a little shy, love

GayleIt'sLikeWeNeverSaidGoodbye.jpgAnd here’s Crystal Gayle again, with all of her glorious alien locution in tow, singing “It’s Like We Never Said Goodbye” (#63).  The content is pleasant enough:  everyone likes to think they can have a second chance on the opportunities they missed in the past, and the music is uplifting if not exactly engaging.  And that’s really all I have to say — nothing else about this song stands out to me in any way.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this song stalled at #63, but it shocks me that something so content-less reached #1 on the country charts.  I mean, it doesn’t even sound like country.

“Computer Game”

YMOComputerGame.jpgComputer Game Theme from the Circus” by The Yellow Magic Orchestra (#60), on the other hand, is completely different from even the few new wave songs we’ve heard so far.  It’s from Japan; it’s an instrumental; it starts with uncoordinated electronic noises; and it’s not particularly danceable.  I’m tempted to label it a novelty song, but it’s definitely not a novelty — the guys who made this track were serious about making this kind of music, in much the same way Kraftwerk and (I guess) Vangelis were (at roughly the same time).  What we’re hearing here is early electronica, music the point of which is listening to the interesting things synthesizers can do:  electronic music designed to stretch the abilities of noise-making.  As a side-note, this some is also evidence of how quickly computers became part of the collective psyche.  Space Invaders was the first hit arcade game; it was released in 1978, and here we are less than two years later, with a song on the charts that sounds like Space Invaders.  I don’t want to overstate how groundbreaking this song was, but I have to think it was very influential given how big synthpop became and how much hip hop borrowed from synthpop.  And, seriously, the Yellow Magic Orchestra went on Soul Train to promote the single, and were probably the weirdest thing that had ever happened to Soul Train until then.

Violet lightning

jeffersonstarshipgirlwiththehungryeyesJefferson Starship is back with “Girl With the Hungry Eyes” (#55), which is something of a hyperkinetic post-apocalyptic lust song, in which a guy who (despite what Einstein’s theories say) can travel at the speed of light meets the daughter of the overlord, who has a perfect fit with perfect lips.  It sounds like a match made in heaven, but that’s debatable because there’s a killing floor involved somehow, but whatever, they hook up after all her friends have gone home, so it’s all good.   In tone it sounds something like a classic rock band trying to get an edge in on the pogoing punk crowd, and come to think of it, that may be exactly what was happening.  It’s fun, and it reminds me in a very good way of Hawkwind’s “Quark, Strangeness, and Charm“, both as a space-aged love song and for it’s fast-paced lightheartedness (and for name-dropping Einstein), but with a deeper instrumentation.

“What I Like About You” by The Romantics (#49) deserves its own entry

When does the heartache end?

david-gates-where-does-the-lovin-go-elektra-3Where Does the Lovin’ Go“, asks David Gates at #46.  I don’t know that I can be bothered to try to answer that question.  And I’m having trouble being bothered to discuss this particular song, because it sounds like so many other sickly-sweet someone-done-someone-wrong songs, that it gets hard to say anything intelligent about one that’s so uninteresting as this. Instead, I’m going to ask this:  Where do all the forgettable albums go?  Back when I was a kid, every record store (there were record stores then, lots of them) had a box or basket or some other display item that held all the non-sellers.  They were worth looking through because sometimes you’d find Shriekback or Gang of Four there.  Often they were full of albums that were supposed to sell big, but didn’t; I remember in particular seeing a lot of Boz Skaggs in cut-out bins.  I imagine David Gates filled a cut-out bin or two in his time, too.  But what happens to forgettable albums now that we buy so much of our music digitally?  It’s an existential question; they sit in the cloud on Amazon or iTunes, but if no one buys them, if no one remembers to even look for them, can they be said to really be?  It’s even weirder than the falling tree in the forest, because the tree undeniably is an object, even if no one is there to hear it fall.  But an album that is entirely digital, with no physical presence… it makes no noise if no one is there to hear it, and can it really be said to be there at all if no one looks for it?  Like the loving that ceases to exist when it goes away (because love, not being tangible, doesn’t really go anywhere), those forgotten tracks sort of phase out of reality into some sort of cultural quantum state, perhaps never to truly exist again…

Someone must’ve kicked you around some

Petty Refugee.jpgRefugee” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers breaks us out of the sub-40s right up to #15, with blues-rock guitar and vocals delivered in a half-Dylan style.  I don’t know what’s going on in the song, but it sounds pretty scary:  there’s this girl and she’s been kidnapped, tied up, kicked around, and Tom’s all nonchalant about it. Actually, now I think I do know what’s going on:  she’s had a hard life so far and she’s worn-down, tired out, and suffering over it… and then Tom Petty comes around and tells her that life is hard, and it’s time to get past the past and not rely on the world to give her the dignity she needs.  It’s an interesting combination of self-reliance and casual indifference that passes as a simple motto for life, or at least the foundation for getting back on one’s feet.  I’m not a fan, but I give it kudos for going past clichés to get at ideas that are more complex than those that show up in your radio-standard pop song.

Deeper than any forest primeval

Fogelberg Longer.pngQueen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” did everyone a great service by keeping three songs out of the #1 spot:  “Do That To Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille, “Yes I’m Ready” by Teri Desario and K.C., and this, “Longer” by Dan Fogelberg.  Of the three, this is probably the best, and not only because it has a flugelhorn solo in it.  As an extended comparison of love to the marvels of nature — the innumerable stars and fish, the deep beauty of untouched forest, and the relief brought by fire in winter and rain in spring — it genuinely has poetic lyrics.  It’s calming and soothing, which makes it a fine soundtrack to a quiet afternoon with your lover on the patio… or for a ride on an elevator to visit your ophthalmologist.

 

 

It shakes all over like a jellyfish

queen_crazy_little_thing_called_loveOn 15 March 1980, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen peaked at #1

As a seven year-old kid, I knew the lyrics to a lot of songs, but none very few, if any were from 1980.  Some of them were from the latter half of 1982, and quite a few of them were new in 1983, but the bulk of them were from the 1960s.  This is because I was mostly listening to the music my parents listened to, and most often that was either the 60s top 40 station or the classic rock station.  My parents were listening to it because it was the music that was on the radio while they were in junior high and high school and I was listening to it because it was what they were listening to.  To this day, when I hear a song that sounds like old-school do-wop or something out of The Beatles’ or Rolling Stones’ back catalog, a little part of my brain trips, and my ears perk up, either out of recognition or out of familiarity.

Today, as an adult, I listen mostly to 80s music, the music I listened to in junior high and (to a lesser extent, because it was then the early 90s and music started getting bad again) high school.  If I had kids, they’d be learning the lyrics to songs by The Fixx, Missing Persons, and Cyndi Lauper, just as I learned to sing along to The Supremes, The Beach Boys, and Strawberry Alarm Clock.  And every so often, new music starts to sound like my nostalgia playlist, and I end up buying an album made by people who are young enough to be the kids of people who aren’t all that much older than me, like La Roux, The Ting Tings, and MGMT.

But I wasn’t driving record sales in the 80s really.  My peak purchasing years for pop culture consumption were really the 90s.  The people driving record sales in 1980 were a little more than a decade older than me, and the music their parents were listening to while they were forming their first permanent memories was early do-wop, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, the people who founded rock and roll.  As a result, a lot of the people making music in 1980 had a lot of respect for those rock and roll pioneers, and their prime consumers — people young enough to listen to new music regularly, but old enough to have ready money to spend on albums featuring that new music — were primed to react positively to songs that could have sat side by side with Buddy Holly and Little Richard.

And that’s where “A Crazy Little Thing Called Love“, Queen’s first #1 hit in the US, comes in.   It sounds like the 50s, and was written (by Freddie Mercury) as an homage to Elvis Presley.  He said in interviews that it took him five or ten minutes to write, in part because it’s meant to be simple, and in part because he composed it on a guitar, an instrument he didn’t really know how to play at the time.  Listening to it, love it or leave it, you can hear immediately why it was such a big hit, particularly in America — everyone who had ever heard rock and roll music could agree:  this is what rock and roll is meant to sound like.  And the way Queen plays it, it seems so easy and effortless, not like the leather jacket that Freddie Mercury wears in the video, but like the white t-shirt underneath it:  comfortably snug, easy to move around in, and reassuringly familiar.  In every decade there are nostalgia acts, and it’s this simple familiarity that they trade on; “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is a particularly well-executed example, and we’ll be hearing from the likes of The Stray Cats, Billy Joel, and Phil Seymour in a bit.  Later on, we’ll be picking up on some retro-60s sounds from people like The Bangles.  When I was in college, there was a weirdly inexplicable retro-40s swing craze (I’m not sure exactly where that came from).  It’s a fairly predictable pattern, and like anything else, it produces both quality and dross, but either way, it will be successful.

Someone found a letter you wrote me

summer_on_the_radio_hollandOn 15 March 1980, “On the Radio” by Donna Summer peaked at #5

All through this blog, I’ve been pretty derisive of disco for being mindless and boring.  I was worried that “On the Radio” by Donna Summer was going to be more of the same awful disco.  Musically… it kind of is:  it’s in a more somber, pensive key than most other disco, but other than that, there’s the same kickdrum-violin onslaught that makes for easy but boring djing.  But the lyrics are actually something else entirely.  The song starts with what is a familiar feeling for most people, being wistful for a lost love, but it doesn’t address it in the usual terms.  In the usual disco song, the singer would sing something like, “I heard a song on the radio and it reminded me of you.”  But this is different:  “Someone found a letter you wrote me and they told the world just how you felt.”  These lyrics personalize the synchronicitous relationship of a random event with one’s daily emotions:  it highlights how when we have strong emotions, whatever they are, ambient events suddenly have meaning.  Of course the song didn’t fall through a hole in the pocket of his overcoat, but that Donna can think that some random song could have been written by her estranged man makes for a much more heartfelt sentiment.

This approach also sets up tension more direct lyrics can’t establish:  “On the Radio” could turn into a stalker song, an unrequited love song, or a happy reconciliation song, and the interesting lyric makes us actually care which way it goes.  We don’t know what kind of character Donna is until she resolves her emotions.  This is an effective way to spice up a worn genre, pull a listener’s interest in, and win over a curmudgeonly jade like me.  So let it not be said that I categorically hate disco — I can like it when it lets me consume the music, not just listen to it.

You’re the right kind of sinner

pat-benatar-heartbreaker-chrysalis-2On 15 March 1980, “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar peaked at #23.

I learned something new today.  I learned that Pat Benatar isn’t the original artist for “Heartbreaker“.  This is hard for me to absorb, because even though it wasn’t her first hit or her biggest hit, it’s one of the songs I most associate with her.  The original was recorded in 1978 by a British woman named Jenny Darren, and so far as I can tell the only recording of that version on youtube is here, complete with some commentary and an interview at the end. I thought maybe I’d be able to talk here a bit about how British and American tastes in music are different, mainly because I was expecting Jenny Darren to sound something like Bonnie Tyler, but apart from some twinkle-toes keyboard in the original (which is more British, if not very British) and a gospel-like vocal in the remake (which is very American) the two versions are very similar.  I can say I think Pat Benatar’s version is better:  it’s a tighter production without being over-produced, and I think her voice is better suited to the material, being both hard and soft instead of just gritty.  But maybe it’s just because I’m so used to Pat Benatar’s version that I like it better?

Anyway, the reason I think Pat Benatar’s hard-but-soft voice is a better fit is because this song is about a tough girl being vulnerable to a tough guy.  When you hear the opening chug and Pat’s bombastic delivery of that line about love being like a tidal wave, you know this is a woman who has seen a lot, survived it all, and refuses to shrink back from challenges, even ones that touch her emotions.  And she tells this guy how much she enjoys the rough-and-tumble relationship they’re in, but also lays down the line:  “Don’t you mess around with me.”  Pat Benatar can dish it out if she needs to and she will if she has to.

This was, amazingly, Pat Benatar’s third single, and the first to chart.  She more or less came out of the gate running, setting the standard for other female rockers, and made herself a staple on the top 40 charts for most of the 80s.

My honey’s not a sweet thing

The_Knack_Baby_Talks_Dirty_coverOn 15 March 1980, “Baby Talks Dirty” by The Knack peaked at #38.

Before I talk about “Baby Talks Dirty” by The Knack, I want to talk about The Turtles.  Not because The Turtles and The Knack have all that much in common, but because something The Turtles did reminds me of what The Knack did with “Baby Talks Dirty”.

You almost certainly know The Turtles as the performers of “Happy Together“, a song that manages to be incredibly good, despite being ridiculously sappy and distractingly catchy.  Very few songs capture the innocent side of the psychedelic 60s like “Happy Together”, and, because it could appeal to literally anyone, it was a huge hit, reaching #1 in 1967.  Needless to say, The Turtles were under a lot of pressure to repeat the performance.  Surely, they had another #1 hit in them!  As it turns out, they didn’t, but their record company was sure they did.  “She’d Rather Be With Me” hit #3; “You Know What I Man” hit #12; “She’s My Girl got to #14.  Two other singles popped up in the middle reaches of the Hot 100.  Then Howard Kaylan, one of The Turtles’ singers, had a goofy idea:  write a song that’s clearly a parody of “Happy Together”, so ridiculously naïve that you couldn’t possibly believe it was a serious song… and use a lot of the same chords as “Happy Together”.  The result was a song about a girl who was Howard’s “pride and joy, et cetera”.  The record execs loved it, had them clean it up a bit, and thus a #6 hit — “Elenore” — was born.

I suspect something similar happened with “Baby Talks Dirty” vis a vis “My Sharona“, which is the song that ensures that any of us have ever heard of The Knack to begin with.  “My Sharona” spent six weeks on the top of the Hot 100 in 1979 and was the #1 single of the year.  It’s a rough and tumble, saucy song about a sexy girl who both taunts and gratifies the singer.  It taps that high-school lust-angst that most high school guys experience and in addition to being incredibly catchy, serves as something of a zeitgeist piece for the end of the 1970s.

Maybe “Baby Talks Dirty” wasn’t the result of pressure from record execs to score another “My Sharona”, but I think it’s pretty clear that whatever the motivation, “Baby Talks Dirty” is something of a parody of “My Sharona” that does tap into the same basic instincts that made “My Sharona” a hit, but was doomed to pale in comparison on the charts.  “Baby Talks Dirty” gets too explicitly raunchy to sit well with a top-40 audience.  Whereas Sharona was a tease, only implying that knock-down dirty sex was in the cards, “Baby Talks Dirty” tells you exactly what’s going on.  Like “My baby likes a real neat beating.”  Or “I got to tame her; make her my pet.”  These lyrics are too adult for and angsty high-school crush song and too juvenile to be taken seriously by the responsible S&M crowd.

Fortunately (perhaps?) the lyrics are mostly buried under music that sounds functionally like an inversion of “My Sharona”, not as good, but recognizably very similar and equally rockable.   Occasionally, those grunts in the chorus, or the occasional suggestive phrase bubbles up and makes you wonder what exactly you’re headbanging to.  So, go ahead and rock out.  Just don’t listen too hard and don’t take it too seriously.

 

Overview of the week of 15 March 1980

The songs that peaked on 15 March 1980 all did so above #45, which you’d think would promise some good music.  For a change it actually does!  Not that there isn’t awful music too — there always will be — but there’s some music here I’ve been looking forward to talking about.  So here we go…

Baby, we were blessed by God

Nolan Us and Love.jpgThankfully “Us and Love (We Go Together)” (#44) was Kenny Nolan’s last appearance on the Hot 100.  It’s the panting falsetto gloating easy listening song that did particularly well in the disco age.  Kenny’s voice sounds like white polyester:  it’s a little bit itchy and doesn’t breathe well, but it sounds good under a lazily-spinning disco ball glinting on mauve stucco walls at some dreadful wedding hall.  The guitar player sounds like he may be a little bit tipsy, the violins drip pomade, and the (inevitable) key change somehow fails to be a key-change in that the song doesn’t sound any different after it.  And then the lyrics are self-satisfied romantic drivel:  all those people seeing them together all congratulating Kenny and his girl on how perfectly they go together like oh so many clichéd harmonizing peas.  It’s yet another single to remind us of the cultural wasteland we were leaving behind on the 70s dance floor.

Close enough for rock n’ roll

38 Special Rocking into the night.jpgI’m having trouble getting excited about “Rockin’ Into the Night” by 38 Special (#43), but I’m having trouble articulating why.  I’ve listened to it about ten times now, and I even passed it up to work on the other songs for this week before coming back to it, and I still don’t get much out of it one way or the other.  It’s not offensive to me, but it doesn’t say anything to me.  Even more than The Babys (see below), it just sounds like everything else that was coming out of the arena rock scene in the 1980s, but without being iconic.  Maybe it’s the awkward even pacing of the way they belt out the title, maybe it’s the thuddingly boring beat… I dunno, but whatever it is, I’m drawing a blank.

I’m looking for the perfect guy

Rushen Haven't you heard.jpgHaven’t You Heard” by Patrice Rushen (#42) is a pleasant surprise here:  I didn’t know she had anything worth noting beyond “Forget Me Nots”.  “Haven’t You Heard” is a suitably funky disco song, regrettably with the same triumphant string section, but it does have a good, not-flashy, electric piano section in the middle, and Patrice’s velvety vocals that likewise don’t demand attention but reward you when you pay attention.  The song also addresses the phenomenon of personal ads; “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” did that from a cynically humorous point of view, whereas here, there’s confidence.  While it’s not a spectacular song, it’s positive and adds a twist to the standard content of pop lyrics, and for that it’s welcome.

“Baby Talks Dirty” by The Knack (#38) is going to get its own entry

If she’s bad, he can’t see it

bette_midler-when_a_man_loves_a_woman_s_1The purpose behind the movie The Rose was to help us all imagine what life was like with Janis Joplin, even if the movie wasn’t technically about Janis Joplin.  Bette Midler’s cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Bette Midler (#35) certainly gives us an idea of what Janis Joplin would have sounded like if she were performing one of the most iconic songs from the ’60s.  And for that we should be thankful, because even if it’s not a ground-breaking version — it doesn’t do anything Joe Cocker didn’t do — it does give us Janis back for five minutes.  I’ve long thought that Bette Midler is actually a better actress than a singer — she performs best, singing or speaking, when she’s not being herself — and this channeling of the soul of Janis Joplin is the thesis statement.

But you did, but you did, but you did

I_Thank_You_ZZ_Top.jpgWeird as it may be, I think “I Thank You” by ZZ Top (#34) is in some ways about the perfect failed relationship.  In the first verse, the guy is singing about how grateful he is for his girl.  He recognizes that he’s just one guy in an ocean of guys, and he’s lucky, thankful, to be with his girl.  The second verse is about how sexy their relationship is, and again, he’s thankful.  The third verse is about how life with her was about constantly doing exciting new things, just to be with her, and he’s thankful.  And in the end, sure she’s gone and it’s a crying shame, but the guys’ still thankful for the time they had together and for the enriching experience.  He’ll hurt but he’ll still move on a better man — you can tell that from the boogie.  Maybe he didn’t thank her enough while they were together, and maybe he didn’t realize he should have been thankful until she was gone, or maybe they just outgrew each other, but at least he’s not angry and bitter, and that makes things right in the world.  Not only is it a great song, it’s also a cover of a top-ten charting  soul song by Sam & Dave.  The ZZ Top version is murky and earthy, sounding nothing like the perky original, which his how cover songs should be.  Both of these songs can stand on their own, with the new version acting as both an homage and a reinvention.

Avoiding tomorrows

the-babys-back-on-my-feet-again-chrysalis-2.jpgBack in My Feet Again” by The Babys (#33) is sort of what 1980 sounds like in my head:  nondescript arena rock that’s trying to be triumphant but feels older than its vintage date.  It’s got that Journey feel without quite being as clever, and it’s trying to be innovative like The Cars, but not quite pulling it off.  It’s the sort of platitude-filled love song that got stuck between two fresher singles at the roller rink or at sporting events and then disappeared by August without anyone wondering what happened to it.

 

They don’t know who I am

Toto 99I would never have known this if I’d not gone to the song’s Wikipedia page, but it turns out that “99” by Toto (#26) is a love song set in a grim future where people have numbers for names and have no emotions.  It’s inspired by the George Lucas film THX-1138, and why not?  Well, I can venture a reason… if you’re going to write a song about a grim future, it should sound different in some way.  So, say, the music should sound unusual, with odd instrumentation or interesting synthesized noises, or maybe an off-kilter time signature or chord progression.  Or maybe the lyrics should indicate in some way that the world the song takes place in is not like our own.  The only hint in this song is that the object of the singer’s devotion is a number, which would more likely have led me to believe the singer was stalking Barbara Feldon than trying to find emotions in a sterile future earth.  So, the verdict is that this was a really good idea very poorly executed.  We’ll have to wait a few years for Styx to do something similar.

And all three of…

“Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar (#23),

“On the Radio” by Donna Summer (#5), and

“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen (#1)

…also deserve their own entries.  I have a lot of work cut out for me.