Only eight songs peaked this week; some of them may actually be good…
She doesn’t love you anymore
If you liked “Romeo’s Tune” by Steve Forbert, you’ll like “Say Goodbye to Little Jo“, too. Sure, it stalled at #85, but as we’ve seen, it isn’t always the best songs that climb the charts. This song sounds like a bitter sweet break-up song, but if you listen, not even too closely, it’s a bitter telling off of a guy who’s lost a girl who was too good for him. She’s perhaps that stereotypical woman who was trying to fix the problem boy, but she’s finally had one too many nights of not talking and being manipulated into staying and she’s gone. It’s a rare empowerment song that isn’t self-congratulatory; no, it’s a song about learning from mistakes, praising the women who do and castigating the men who don’t.
My heart keeps on feeling
I will admit I wasn’t expecting to stumble on The Beach Boys in 1980, and, doing research I’m even more amazed to learn that these are all the original Beach Boys. I’ll also admit I’ve never much been a fan of their music, but I do respect them. Don’t get me wrong — I respect them — they’ve clearly got talent, pulling off harmonies that other groups wouldn’t try to crest even with floatation devices. It’s just that their lyrics are so predominantly vapid; I wish they’d used their talent to perform better music. “Goin’ On” (#83) is a perfect example of this. The vocal talent is crystal clear, layered, and deep, but the lyrics are moronic: “We couldn’t quite make it/But I still can’t shake it” are the lazy, cheap teen-aged rhymes Frank Zappa was mocking the Beach Boys for back in the 60s, and here they are as certified adults singing the same kind of nonsense. I wish I could say that The Beach Boys get better, but I know that 1987 is going to bring us “Kokomo”, so, no it doesn’t get better.
Don’t look now, but here come the ’80s
“Borrowed Time” (#64) was Styx’s opening song for their 1979-80 tour, and I’m sure at the time it sounded really rockin’ and edgy. I don’t think it’s aged well. The tempo is in an awkward middle-ground between driving and rambling, which, when combined with the grouped triplets they use to emphasize the starts to the phrases in the chorus, sounds shambling and staggering. They also haven’t quite figured out how to meld the gentle sci-fi synthesizer with their hard-rockin’ guitar, and the coupling feels like a pale imitation of what Queen and Journey were doing around the same time. Still it’s inoffensive and it gets to where it wants to go, which is the second rockin’ song in the set, so let’s cut it some slack.
Lighting my dreams like a morning star
You may not know Felix Cavaliere by name, but you probably know some of his work. He was a member of The Starlighters, who gave us “The Peppermint Twist” ( which as a Twist song has stood the test of time much better than anything Chubby Checker put to vinyl) and he was a Young Rascal, whom we have to thank for the inanity that is “Good Lovin’“. But he had a mellow solo run too, and “Only a Lonely Heart Sees” (#36) is an artifact of that solo career. Here he’s jumping on the easy-listening bandwagon, giving it something of a breathy Bee-Gees twist, making music for people who are to laid-back, or perhaps a year or two too old, for real disco. He’s going to show us the way to paradise on the heels of the hands that tap out the Caribbean rhythms on those bongos that pepper the percussion track. No need to get out of your lawn chair or maroon shag easy chair — in paradise your pulse doesn’t have to rise above resting rate.
I appreciate you’re busy
Inexplicably, here’s Cliff Richard again, this time with “Carrie“. I understand that he was a big deal in Britain — like Johnny Hallyday was for France, he was, no, is, Britain’s Elvis — but I didn’t understand that he had any impact overseas. And yet here he is at #34, the lower reaches of the top 40, but top 40 nonetheless. Perhaps more inexplicably, this song is actually good. The creeping guitar manages to capture the feel of anxious shyness and curiosity, precisely the tone that a song told by a guy looking for a vanished girl should hit, full of trepidation and hope at the same time. And the lyrics are interesting: “the young wear their freedom like cheap perfume”, for instance, captures both the slapdash excitement of immature maturity and the cynicism of an older person’s perspective on that ill-considered freedom. All of that and this song rocks, with an infectious melody that makes you want to follow Carrie to wherever she went, maybe a grimy billiards room or some back-alley biker bar. Wherever she is and whatever reason, you can feel why Cliff wants to find her.
You deny me of my needs
Utopia was essentially a vehicle for Todd Rundgren to produce music under a name other than Todd Rudgren. “Set Me Free” (#27) is a surprisingly bouncy light-progressive single. I’m not sure what, exactly, I was expecting. Well, I can tell you that at first I was expecting Utopia to be a disco-funk outfit, and then, when I saw Todd Rundgren on the track, I was expecting something, well, more rock-oriented. But “Set Me Free” is pretty much straight-forward pop. Well, at least the arrangement and instrumentation is. The melody wanders all over the place, so that it doesn’t really have that sing-along quality that characterizes pop singles. I mean, imagine trying to sing this karaoke, even without a few beers in you, let alone drunk like most karaoke would be done. I’m not sure it’s possible. Anyway, it’s an interesting curio, but ‘m not entirely sure I understand how it got to #27.
Somebody’s got to lose
The Whispers are the funk-disco outfit I expected Utopia to be. “And the Beat Goes On” was their biggest hit, landing at #19 and more or less at the midpoint of their singles catalogue. As disco songs go, it’s pretty innocuous. It makes my feet want to get up and dance without relying on too many disco clichés. And there’s a message to the song that is unusual for a disco song: instead of the beat going on being about endless dancing, its about picking oneself up after a setback (in love, of course, it’s always about love) and getting on with your life. And dancing to it. The instrumentation of this song is actually very promising; it sounds a lot more like the kind of funk that was coming out in 1985 than the bulk of soul tracks that populated jukeboxes in 1979.
Leave that nine-to-five up on the shelf
Speaking of music that sounds like 1979, this week’s list ends with “Off the Wall” by Michael Jackson (#10). Maybe that’s unfair. Michael Jackson’s voice is its own thing, it’s timeless, and regardless of the backing music, it transcends its release year. And musically, the composition is more adventurous than most disco, with an almost prog-like melody and ambitious bridges. But the instrumentation is very disco; it’s very very close to a Stevie Wonder-style modern jazz song, but there’s the breathy layered background music and the kick drum and that weird Evermean cackling at the beginning. Regardless, the song just wants to get you up off your feet and drop your inhibitions, and, if you like disco, this will achieve that goal while still challenging your brain with complexity you won’t get from KC & The Sunshine Band.