We don’t need no education

Pink Floyd Another BrickOn 12 April 1980, “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd peaked at #1

There are few counter-culture anthems from the 80s as powerful or as instantly recognizable as Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2“.  As a song, it has a visceral quality that’s undeniable:  it’s got a stark, danceable beat, an urgent but subdued delivery, and a message that goes far beyond the standard fodder for pop music.  But its message leaves me torn, all the more so because of the bleak political turn the world has taken as my generation has come to be the main economic and political actor on the world stage.

Actually, there are two messages in the song that bother me.  First is the bitter misogyny.  A lot of pop songs written by harbor casual misogyny, from “Shake, Rattle, and Roll“, which implies that all a woman is good for is cooking food for her hungry man, to pretty much anything by Rick James, who wants his women to be available to him for whatever purpose at whatever time he chooses.  But, “Another Brick in the Wall” — and the film The Wall — is full of outright hostile misogyny.  The villains are male authority figures, in this case school teachers, who delight in beating and demeaning their charges because, being routinely “thrashed within an inch of their lives” by their “fat and psychopathic wives,” they have to exert their masculinity on innocent children.  I didn’t go to a British boarding school — and there are a lot of cultural artifacts out there excoriating the British educational system of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (like the brilliantly odd film If… ) — but it’s hard for me to believe that the main source of the problem was sadistic housewives.

The second problem I have with the messaging in the song is its anti-intellectual bent.  I get that schools are difficult places with sometimes arbitrary rules governing discipline, and that that can feel stifling to a kid.  But the answer to that problem is not to reject education like the chorus of the song suggests.  Being another brick in the wall isn’t about being educated, it’s about letting an unimaginative education system make you the victim of thought control.  Thought control only works on the stupid and uneducated — Jabba the Hutt told us that in The Return of the Jedi — and if you can’t survive school because some henpecked geometry professor is sarcastic at you and won’t let you have your pudding if you didn’t eat your meat, well, you’re not going to do particularly well when evil-minded politicians offer you simple answers to complicated problems and then take your services and freedoms away.  You’ve got to be smart enough to see through them, and that means sitting through science, math, and civics classes.

I don’t know if Pink Floyd thought their message was about more than one kid in a story they wrote or if they thought it was a universal truism that women and schools are evil.  I’d like to think not, but the guys in Pink Floyd are pretty weird anti-establishment people, so who knows?  What I do know is that too many of my classmates in high school who loved this song either dropped out or ended up in dead-end jobs, and probably somehow think they beat the system, not realizing that they’re helping to perpetuate it.  Which is a sad end to think about when you’re out under the blacklights dancing to “We don’t need no education.”

Overview of 12 April 1980

Still trying to get back into a good pace on these posts.  This week is a mixed bag…

Come the night, we’re in overdrive

rcr_scandalThe lower reaches of the Hot 100 are designed for songs like “Scandal” by RCR (#94).  It’s a competent classic rock song with a swaggery guitar and lyrics that approach interesting but fall mostly on the cliché side of things.  It’d fit just fine with rock songs by bigger stars of the time — think Pat Benatar, Tom Petty, The Pretenders, and the like.  The problem is that as much as it makes my shoulders bob, it doesn’t do enough to be memorable past whatever song comes next.  Very little in the song — voice, guitar playing, lyrics, even attitude — is particularly unique, though, so it’s no surprise to me that “Scandal” didn’t rise any higher.

No more jaguars

nazareth-holidayI’ve never heard a Nazareth song before, and I can’t say I ever felt I had missed something.  Listening to “Holiday” (#87), I’m thinking I might want to rethink that.  It’s not that I like it — I think it’s clumsy, with the chorus taking too much of a flippant departure from the grittier body of the song — but I like what they’re trying to do in the chorus.  It’s hard to pull off a line like “Please, no more husbands” and still come off sounding macho; Nazareth succeeds in this pretty handily.  There’s an interesting attempt here at capturing that moment when an adolescent realizes his home environment isn’t healthy, whether it’s because Mom’s a drunk, or engaged in serial disastrous relationships, or pushing her son too hard to be something he isn’t. Bravo for taking classic rock to a place it rarely goes, even if I don’t actually like the result.

We’ll both be walking away

bar-kays-today-is-the-dayNo joke, the first time I went to listen to “Today Is the Day” by The Bar-Kays (#60), I didn’t last more than 20 seconds.  With that first “Today is the day!”, my brain said, “I can’t take this, it’s going to be awful.”  But I persevered, in the name of science, or completeness, or foolhardiness, or something, anyway… My brain was right; it’s awful, from the so-high-pitched-it’s-nearly-nonexistent “oooh!” to the plodding self-important beat, to the entirely uninspired brass section, it’s shamelessly uninteresting.  Don’t forget the needless guitar, and the key change at 2:13.  Everything about this song is screaming, “Get me into the top ten!” and the evil part of me is glad it never got there.

What’s her name?  I can’t tell ya!

zevon-certain-girlI’m a big fan of early Warren Zevon, and it saddens me that this song is the only time I’m going to get to talk about him.  He’s sort of Elton John’s evil twin brother, writing piano ballads about alcoholism and urban blight, upbeat dance songs about psychos and werewolves, and stomping rockers that sound like snippets from out of a Charles Bukowski novel. Even more unfortunate is that “A Certain Girl” (#57) is a cover of an single by Ernie K-Doe that was subsequently done by The Yardbirds.  Not unfortunate because of quality; not at all:  Warren Zevon takes the song and makes it his own, putting a sinister thread of angst under the whole track that culminates in manic, frantic near-insanity at the end.  The narrators of Warren Zevon songs are rarely people you’d want to date, even when the song is borrowed.  No, it’s unfortunate because I can’t talk about the genius of Warren Zevon’s own lyrics… there’s no disturbing character-building here, no clever wordplay (Warren Zevon manages to get words like cummerbund and brucellosis into his songs, without raising eyebrows).  Nope, I have to be content with a relatively tame Zevon track; if you haven’t listened to his beeter-known singles, you owe it to yourself to look them up.

Trying so hard not to see

John_Denver_Autograph_album_cover.jpgI have vivid memories of John Denver’s episode of The Muppet Show. I remember waiting eagerly for Kermit the Frog to announce the guest star, and when he announced John Denver, my whole body would be overcome with emotion… “What?  Again?!  Where’s Shirley Bassey?  Or Mark Hammill?”  I’ve seen that sappy-sick version of that garden song so many times that I fear I may have an unfair prejudice against John Denver.  But than I listen to “Autograph” (#52), and all that sappy-sick disappointment rushes back.  But this time there’s a flute.

Heaven in the morning

roberta-flack-with-donny-hathaway-you-are-my-heaven-atlantic-2.jpgListen to the voices of Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack on “You Are My Heaven” (#47), how effortlessly they make their voices sound like silk, sliding through the air into your ears, strong but caressing.  Really, they’re like human brass instruments, putting just enough happiness into the verses, just enough surprised contentment into their sighs that you could believe that they were indeed a couple rejoicing not just in the greatness of their love, but in the every-day comfort of being together.  This song really embodies the wonder of an everyday love, one that has settled into a routine, but still brings both lovers happiness:  heaven in the morning every morning, who wouldn’t’ rejoice in that?

Your river is fading

loggins-keep-the-fireSome musicians seem to exist mainly to fill out the gaps in the top 100.  Kenny Loggins is one of these artists, with a surprising number of otherwise forgettable singles that capped out somewhere between 80 and 30, he’s sort of a superpowered studio musician, there to keep the studio running when better things aren’t on order.  “Keep the Fire” (#36) is one of these ephemeral songs, with vaguely new-age lyrics (and album cover), suitable for listening between traffic reports, and featuring what is, I think, an early use of autotuning.  I’ve never heard it before now, I’ve no intention to hear it again, and if I were to hear it again, I’m not convinced I’d remember it at all.

Gotta run for shelter

too_hot_by_kool_and_the_gang_and_lisa_stansfieldToo Hot” (#5) is the second entry for Kool & The Gang, and… it’s kind of a let down after “Ladies’ Night”.  It’s a fine, if not particularly insightful, look at a relationship that’s gone sour after years of getting stale.  It’s sort of the opposite of “You Are My Heaven” above.  I’m not sure why musicians take lyrics about fading love and set it to a song appropriate for a couple’s slow dance.  Listening to this, I imagine men in white suits and women in gold sequin gowns dancing slow and close, looking deep into each others’ eyes, but the song is about people who don’t intend to do that sort of thing any more.  Has anyone ever had this as their wedding dance song?  It has the feel of a wedding song, but would be so inappropriate in that role

And… we’ll cover the #1 song in a separate entry…

 

 

 

 

Overview of 5 April 1980

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog, and for that I apologize — life took some wicked turns, but now I’m back to 1980…

Suddenly it went astray

jackie-deshannon-i-dont-need-you-anymore-rca.jpgI’ve never seen the film Together? and based on the lead single from the soundtrack — “I Don’t Need You Anymore” recorded by Jackie DeShannon and co-written by no less than Burt Bacharach and Paul Anka (#86) — I don’t feel like I need to.  The syrupy delivery of run-of-the-mill break-up lyrics slicked over treacly instrumentation, complete with plaintive, but unimpressive, harmonica, simply mumbles, “really, don’t listen.”  It’s a shame, because the big reveal at the end (spoiler alert) “Except I don’t think it’s really true” gets drowned out in all the bathos.  That last line really needs much more emotion than Jackie DeShannon is delivering.

This funky kind of music just makes you want to move

Vaughan Bounce Roll.pngSo, apparently “skate disco” was a thing, and if you were skate-discoing in early 1980, you were almost certainly doing so to “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll Pt. 1” by Vaughan Mason & Crew (#81).  I was too young to skate disco; even if I were old enough, I’d probably not have been, because I’m a lousy skater and I don’t much like disco.  Nonetheless, even though this song is as tautological as any song advertising some fad dance (like the popcorn or the peppermint twist), it’s nonetheless fun and funky.  It’s got a good bassline, it’s got a good groove, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

I work on solar power

Debbie Jacobs High on Your Love.jpgDonna Summer’s influence on disco can’t be overstated, whether you like her or not (I’m mixed on the subject).  As evidence, we have “High on Your Love” by Debbie Jacobs (#70), which clearly shows the influence of “Hot Stuff“, not just in lyrical content, but from in instrumentation and delivery.  As derivative as the song is, from its rambling guitar intro to Debbie belting out her lustful stamina, it does do a few interesting things.  The song breaks away to an interesting cowbell interlude (can a cowbell have a solo?  I guess so!) followed by a solo by some synthesized noodle box sort of noise thing.  I’m kind of embarrassed to say it, but I like it.  If I were at a dance club, this song could keep my batteries going for hours, too.

I can’t wish you well anymore

Bonoff Baby Don't Go.pngFull disclosure:  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Karla Bonoff song.  She’s one of those names I’ve heard a lot about, but have no actual experience with.  (Boz Scaggs is in this category as well.)  “Baby Don’t Go” (#69) doesn’t really explain to me why she’s got a strong reputation.  I can only imagine that she’s a really powerful songwriter whose work is too interesting to make it to the charts, except when she’s deliberately playing to the crowd.  She’s a darling of Linda Ronstadt, who actually has pretty good taste in music, so that’s saying something there.  I’m just not getting much inspiration out of this particular track.

Take off your ring

the-captain-and-tennille-love-on-a-shoestring-1980.jpgI had never herd “Love on a Shoestring” by Captain & Tenille (#55) before today.  I expected it to be a sappy love song about how, when you have a perfect love, you can get through with out much money and get through any hardship.  This is, I admit, mainly because I know “Muskrat Love“, which is dreadfully sappy in addition to being entirely ridiculous, so who could blame me for expecting more of the same?  The good news is that I was wrong.  This song is a bit edgier, telling the story of a woman who is recalling the affair she had with a married man, knowing that there were no (shoe)strings attached, and lamenting that the affair has lapsed.  The bad news is that it’s still Captain & Tennille, which means it’s still musically uninteresting and vocally soulless.  Nice try, big miss.

After all this time, you’d think I wouldn’t cry

wayne-newton-years-stereo-aries-iiThis is the only time we’re going to hear from Wayne Newton, so before I talk about “Years“(#35), I want to point out that in 1989, Wayne Newton made a wonderfully smarmy James Bond villain in License to Kill.  As for “Years”, Barbara Mandrel first recorded it a year earlier and, despite the occasional bent-string country guitar string plaintiveness, I think her version is better.  She’s got a voice that sounds like honey, whereas Wayne Newton has a voice that sounds, well, not silky-smooth anyway.  When Barbara Mandrell sings about leaving the hall light on just in case her ex comes back, it sounds sweet; for Wayne Newton, it sounds pathetic, if not creepy.  Barbara didn’t have to go for a cheap key change either.  So, once again, here’s a cover of a song that really didn’t need to be covered.

A good man pays his debts

heart-even-it-up-epic-2I am not a big fan of Heart, but I recognize that it’s a good thing they exist.  They are refreshing proof that rock n’ roll (as opposed to pop) can be a women’s domain as much as it is for men.  This may seem a strange thing that needs asserting, but the reason women rockers are fairly commonplace today is because of bands like Heart.  In the macho 70s, Heart proved women could be tough and assertive without being countercultural, carving out space for women to be strong and disappointed with their male options.  “Even It Up” is a great example of this:  the girls — ahem, women — Are singing their hearts out about how much effort they’re putting into their relationship with a guy who’s not holding up his end of the deal.  She brings him breakfast in bed when he’s down and all he can do is boast about his prowess.  Well, in that last bit, she tells him the axe is going to fall (a female axe, mind) and then it does, with a solid guitar solo. So, keep on rockin’ Heart; I may not be listening, but there are a lot of guys who are, and, more importantly, should.

You were all of sixteen

tommy-james-three-times-in-loveListening to  “Three Times in Love” by Tommy James (#19), I am reminded of The Last Picture Show, specifically the relationship between Jeff Bridges and Cloris Leachman.  He’s a high school senior, she’s a middle-aged woman neglected by her otherwise distracted husband, and, in an Oscar-earning scene, the whole thing falls apart.  I don’t know if Tommy James and Ron Serota had that scene in mind when they wrote this song, but they captured the sentiment of a mismatched relationship going past its expiration date.  In this context, “Three Times in Love” imagines what eventually becomes of that sixteen year-old guy once he matures, and suggests he’s mature and can have a normal relationship.  But, it’s Cloris Leachman whose shattered emotions won the Oscar; has anyone written a song about her?

Dream about me

ronstadt-how_do_i_make_you_coverSpeaking of Linda Ronstadt, we have “How Do I Make You” at (#10), mercifully in rock mode.  And she’s really rockin’.  As someone who knows her better for warbling pseudo-country or for her psychedelic work with the Stoned Ponies, this is an eye-opener.  She’s pushing the limits of her indoor voice pleading this guy to love her.  As I said above, Linda’s always had good taste, and she’s willing to explore areas outside of her comfort zone.  She’s doing that here, perhaps less interestingly than when she’s covering Warren Zevon, but still in unexpected ways.

Not my brand

him_-_rupert_holmesRupert Holmes continues to surprise me.  I had originally written off “Escape (The Pina Colada Song) ” as a sappy nothing until I actually listened to it.  Now, here I am with “Him” (#6), and the treacly lounge violins belie a surprisingly thoughtful telling of a man who knows his girlfriend is cheating, and is reaching the breaking-point.  She’s getting careless, you see, leaving the other guy’s cigarettes around the house.  It’s possible that it’s this carelessness is what is setting Rupert over the edge; the first few lyrics are so careworn and resigned that I get the sense that he could handle the cheating if Rupert weren’t always being reminded of it.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned from relationships (and advice columnists) the member of a relationship who delivers an ultimatum like Rupert does in this song is going to be the one who loses — either she’s going to leave or she’ll pretend to be faithful while going back to the affair on the sly.  But Rupert sounds like he’s ready to lose, and who can blame him?  He’s a victim in a really unpleasant situation; I’d want it to end, too.

I used to love to make you cry

working_my_way_back_to_you_-_spinnersIt is, alas, established in the entertainment business that if you put something out there that has name recognition, people will naturally gravitate toward it.  This is why Hollywood keeps creating mediocre remakes of good movies (Sabrina, The Day the Earth Stood Still) instead of making stories that are more relevant to the zeitgeist of the time.  So, then The Spinners come along and give us a straight-up remake of not just “Working My Way Back to You” by The Four Seasons throwing in a bit of something called “Forgive Me, Girl” which I’m not able to track down in the limited amount of time I’m willing to work on it. The result, “Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me, Girl” is bland and overproduced.  But it worked– it went to #2.  Give the people what they want, or even more importantly, what they don’t realize they want, and you’ll never want for money.

 

 

 

Overview of 29 March 1980

29 March is a mixed bag both musically and in terms of quality, but there really aren’t any stand-out songs.

You say it, and I’ll pay it

jimmy_buffett-survive_sI’m getting a very strong Randy Newman vibe off of “Survive” by Jimmy Buffett (#77).  It’s in the way Jimmy takes concrete, mundane details that we all can recognize from our everyday lives and turns them into an image that speaks depths about deep emotions, here love and loneliness.  Who hasn’t on occasion opened up a telephone bill and gotten a green, sour feeling in their stomach?  But here, Jimmy turns it into a symbol of how much he misses whoever he’s singing to:  the daily (and costly) reminders of being away make his longing for her all the more poignant.  The later verses make it clear that he’s missing his woman because he’s off on a tour — he doesn’t unpack for that one day’s visit because he has to go back and play some gig somewhere — and it’s usually a bad sign when a musician starts complaining in his song about how tough life is on the road, but at least in this song, it’s a good thing.  And it’s a reminder that musicians (or any performers) are real people:  no matter how much fun they look like they’re having on stage singing for the thousandth time about margaritas and volcanos, they’ve got real lives that they’d much rather be leading.

You’re a fool-hearted man

dottie-west-a-lesson-in-leavin-united-artistsHas any hip-hop artist sampled the backbeat from “A Lesson in Leavin’” by Dottie West (#73)?  Because if they haven’t they should:  it’s got a funky little beat and, more importantly, that intro is about as clean a clip as you can possibly get — no need to stitch it together from other parts of the song, there it is in all it’s glory.  Even the first vocal lines, the part over the backbeat with no other music, made me think that maybe this wasn’t the country song I was expecting it to be, that maybe Dottie West was some blue-eyed soul singer.  But no, it’s country, but as country goes, this is pretty good.  It’s not twangy or nasally.  Really the only things that make this fit for the country stations is Dottie’s slight a Tennessee accent and the somewhat shrill female backing vocals.  Well, and the lyrical content:  the restrained vengeful reprimand from a wronged woman, and a few Southern turns of phrase.  In a way, I’m surprised this wasn’t a bigger cross-chart hit, because it seems like it could have been an easy fit on the top 40 and easy listening stations as well as the country chart it topped.

I kept my promise

festival-argentinaAs you can probably imagine, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” by Festival (#72) is a disco version of the song from the hit Broadway musical, Evita, and as you can probably imagine, it’s really horrible.  I’m not going to go into my distaste of Evita, what with it being a celebration of the puppet-wife of a quasi-fascist dictator; I’ll just say that I generally don’t much like musicals to begin with because of how most of them, Evita included, artificially force a story and music together into some sort of lumbering Frankenstein creature. But then to discofy it, makes an even clunkier Frankenstein beast.  Keep your distance.

Clouds burst to give water

stevie-wonder-outside-my-window-tamlaI’m going to sing the praises of Stevie Wonder again, not because I think “Outside My Window” (#52) is a particularly good song, but because it’s an interesting song with a something of an interesting story.  You see, it’s literally a love song to a flower.  Why?  Well, this song, and the entire album it’s from, are the soundtrack to The Secret Life of Plants, a documentary furthering the theory that plants are at least semi-sentient.  First off, you have to be really brave to write and perform an entire soundtrack in support of such a thesis; I’ve already said on this blog that Stevie Wonder is one of the few people so far in 1980 who was taking any musical risks, and here he is doing it again, with a moderate amount of mainstream success.  Not only is the whole project a bit weird, but it’s even weirder — and braver — to have  a blind guy write music to accompany a movie about so visual a topic as plants.  The Wikipedia article for the album talks briefly about how Stevie Wonder went about doing this, having the producer describe what the scenes in the movie look like so he could write fitting accompaniment, and frankly, that takes guts on the part of everyone involved.  Not having seen the film, I can’t say if the result works as a soundtrack, but this single is at least interesting:  a musically odd piece, with reduced chords, jazzy construction, and a weird squishy noise serving as percussion.  Do I want to listen to this a lot?  No.  Was it refreshing to hear a few times?  Absolutely.

Invisible airwaves crackle with life

RUSH_The_Spirit_of_Radio.jpgI have never been much of a fan of Rush, but I respect what they do with music, because, like Stevie Wonder, they try and succeed in doing interesting things with music that few people were trying to do on the top 40 charts. “The Spirit of Radio” (#51) is a perfect example of them doing this.  They have their trademark soaring guitars and complicated rhythms that lift a listener beyond the standard rock n’ roll beat with the predictable verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus structure.  Instead of the music being a vessel for the lyrics, Rush seems to use lyrics as packaging for the interesting things they’ll do with the music, as if they’re bribing us to listen to their musical mastery by giving us words to listen to.  Not that the lyrics are lightweight:  no, Rush has written a song about the power of music to capture people’s imaginations, but also about how easily such a force for liberation can be corrupted by the allure of fame that categorizes, delegitimizes, and sanitizes music.  Rush is railing against the top 40 radio they successfully broke into (well, in Canada and Britain anyway, where this song went to #13 ad #22 respectively), and I’m all for subversiveness like that.  And then toward the end, they throw in some reggae, just to keep us on our toes.

Burned up my childhood days

willie-nelson-my-heroes-have-always-been-cowboys-cbsMy Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” by Willie Nelson (#44) is a straightforward cover of a song by Waylon Jennings from 1976 from the soundtrack to The Electric Horseman, which I’ve never seen, or even heard of.  I was always befuddled that my moth and my two uncles had a fascination with cowboys — and the wild west in general — similar to the sentiments of this song.  Cowboys have never meant anything to me, and I certainly never had the idea that they were a cohort of noble savages who fought for law and justice despite being barely civilized themselves.  But my mother and her brothers would reminisce about Bonanza and Gunsmoke, speaking a language I barely understood, despite it being English.  Of course, their parents’ generation created those shows about their parents’ generation, something along the lines of my generation creating Argo, Apollo 13, and Mad Men.  So, even though my heroes have never been cowboys, this song has its place; it’s just not in my record collection.

Stab you in the back with a switchblade knife

foreigner_-_women_b-w_the_modern_day_1979The don’t make casual misogyny like “Women” by Foreigner (#41) anymore.  The lyrics are just a rundown of all sorts of women in the world:  behind bars, in airplanes, in magazines, limousines, who need a shove, and, as if it were unusual, with their clothes on.  None of these women seem to be particularly nice or even pleasant, and the only thing that makes them interesting is the situation they happen to be in.  I mean, those women behind bars got there somehow, but Foreigner doesn’t seem to care about that beyond the fact that they’re bad girls.  So, what does this song say about women?  That they exist, that they can be dangerous, and that sometimes you need to rough them up.  No thanks.

You know I’m not that strong

j_geils-come_back_single_coverCome Back” by The J. Geils Band (#32) presages a time when the charts would be dominated by songs that occupy the intersection of rock, dance, and new wave, synthesizer-driven songs that nonetheless rock and get people out into the shadow of the disco ball.  If this song had been released in, say, 1982 alongside “Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone”, I think it would have been a huge hit.  Not that #32 is a bad showing or anything, but with more polish and an audience more primed to hear music in this vein, it’d’ve been big.

Give it all you got

Mangione-Give-It_all-You-Got.jpgMy father loved Chuck Mangione.  I never regarded him as anything more than harmless.  Given all the other things we might have been listening to on the way to school, I far preferred Chuck Mangione over some of the other available options.  I don’t explicitly remember “Give It All You Got” (#18), but frankly it sounds like all the other smooth jazz I’ve heard in my life.  At least it actually sounds like jazz, unlike a lot of the other stuff I’ve heard on smooth jazz stations.  (Once I heard “Moments in Love” by the Art of Noise on a smooth jazz station, which pushes the definition of jazz to a ridiculous extent.)  Anyway, I feel the same way about “Give It All You Got” — it’s harmless, and at least it showcases trumpet, which doesn’t happen very often in top 20 singles.

You don’t need that heart of stone

shalamar-second-timeShalamar, at least in “The Second Time Around” (#8) is everything I hate about disco.  Its mix is all front-loaded, which makes it sound like a TV commercial, even the bass guitar sounds like it’s treble, it has silly little sound effects to remind you when to point your gold ring-encrusted finger at the air conditioning vent while you boogie, and the lyrics are, well, boring.  “The second time is so much better, baby; and I’ll make it better than the first time.”  Honey, don’t do it!  He’s going to trample all over you again, just like he is this monotonous disco beat!

Together we can learn to grow

Andygibbdesire.jpgDesire” by Andy Gibb (#4) starts out sounding like something dark and stormy, but it doesn’t last long.  Unfortunately, Andy Gibb has to remind you that he’s a Bee-Gee but blurting out a few breathy gasps right out of “Stayin’ Alive”.  Fortunately, there’s a bit of a reggae shuffle beat underlying “Desire” that may distract you from the fact that the vocals are delivered at such a high falsetto as to be unintelligible.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of those falsetto vocals.  And the lyrics are some sort of mélange of world peace nonsense, juxtaposing opposite states and then suddenly springing on the woman in question that Andy’s totally smitten with her.  Presumably is such a confusing world, the only thing he knows is that he’s infatuated.  The only think I know is I’m waiting for next week.

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.