On 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.