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.

 

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Excuses are hard to find

Breathless Takin it BackOn 26 January, 1980, “Takin’ It Back by Breathless peaked at #92.

I get the feeling that Breathless was a little bit ahead of their time.  Not in that they are particularly good — “Takin’ It Back” is a pretty standard, unremarkable rockin’ arena rock song — but they’re certainly not bad, and there’s not much separating them from the other power chord, soaring guitar, generic synth sound back-up arena rock that would be all over the charts in a few years.  Or even months.  Breathless sounds like it’s presaging bands like The Cars, Journey, Asia, The Tubes, that 80s jocks remember fondly.  For whatever reason — lack of marketing support from EMI perhaps — Breathless didn’t get much traction outside of Akron, Ohio and the immediate area; nice to have, but not exactly a springboard to fame and fortune.

We have to remember that the environment for popular music today is unusual in that it’s national, or even universal.  Whatever you hear on Akron radio stations today is pretty much identical to what you’d be hearing in Seattle and Amarillo and Richmond and New York,  London, Paris, Munich.. everywhere .  That wasn’t true in the US until… I’m not entirely sure, but my guess is sometime in the early 90s.  In the early 80s, though, you still had local hits by local bands.  If you were in Ohio, you were hearing Breathless, whereas if you were in Austin, you were  hearing, say, Gary Myrick.  Different parts of the country had different sounds, and each regional sound had some interesting stuff going on that you could miss entirely, and some of it was good.  Or maybe it wasn’t necessarily good, but it spoke to you in a way that the national music hitting the top 40 wouldn’t.  It was a labor of love to find this music and to get the sense that you weren’t missing something somehow, and it’s part of that feeling that has me still finding interesting music from 20 years ago — people played for their local audience and hoped that would get them on the charts, whereas today it seems everyone is writing music to get on the charts, and whatever it is that was special to a particular artist got lost in the processing.

If you wanna win, you have to learn how to play

headgames.pngOn 5 January 1980, “Head Games by Foreigner peaked at #14. 

I’m not a big fan of Foreigner; I think a lot of their music sounds a lot alike, and virtually indistinguishable from other arena rock acts that littered the charts throughout the 80s.  “Head Games” is as good a track as any to communicate this:  Mick Jones belting out strong rambling lyrics over a slow-paced, and yet tense, backing track of chrome-plated power chords and tromping drums.  I mean, there isn’t even a proper intro; the song just starts, as if it had always been playing, since the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of the LP. But in the context of everything else going on in 1979 and 1980, I can understand why Foreigner seemed like a big deal, because, frankly folks, this is about as good as it gets.

As predictable as Foreigner is, they’re a smidge better than other classic rock acts at the time and they’re leagues ahead of the disco and easy listening drivel.  I said Foreigner is barely indistinguishable from their peers, but they are distinguishable; their key changes aren’t in the obvious places, their lyrics aren’t predictable, even when the situations they’re singing about are.  In this song, the lyrics aren’t about how badly the woman treats him, or at least not only about that; they’re about the mental acrobatics the both of them are playing.  Even if he’s participating against his will, Mick is playing these head games, and that adds an interesting tension to the song that you don’t often find this high up in the charts.  So, keep on keepin’ on, Foreigner; you may not be playing music I like, but you’re at least putting something of moderately greater interest on the charts than most people bargained for from the top 40.