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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Overview of 23 February 1980

23 February 1980 is a short week, with only seven songs hitting their peak:

 It ain’t love but it ain’t bad

JohnCougarSmallParadise.jpgJohn Cougar Melloncamp’s made a career out of angsty earnestness, and “Small Paradise” (#87) is an attempt in kind that doesn’t quite hit the mark.  It feels like it’s trying to be epic, but it’s hard to be epic with only two verses; do we have enough time to feel much for the veteran lovers whose hearts are warm despite their ears being cold?  Do we care if the girl John thinks he knows is actually the girl he thinks he knows when we don’t get another verse about her?  “Small Paradise” doesn’t feel finished, and we don’t know enough about the bar to know whether calling it a small paradise is irony or honesty.  One more verse, maybe we could have gotten another 20 places on the charts.

“I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats at #73 warrants its own page.

You can say we’re conceited

JimKirkVoiceofFreedom.jpgYou would think if you wanted to foist a jingoistic single on the world, you would try to time it to your country’s independence day.  Independence Day in the USA is July Fourth; Jim Kirk’s grating bombastic bit of national chauvinism — “Voice of Freedom” — peaked in February at #71.  Perhaps he was hoping to perform it at the Super Bowl.  The lyrics are so cringe-inducing that it’s sometimes hard to tell if “Voice of Freedom” is meant as an ironic bit of satire that hit so close to its target as to be indistinguishable.  Lyrics like the part where the TM singers boldly announce without a hint of sorrow that a lot of their friends have died for freedom really make me wonder.  But even the most craven satirist wouldn’t juxtapose lyrics about treasuring the freedom of speech with lyrics insisting that schools teach kids religion.  I’m all for freedom, but this song isn’t about freedom; it’s about forcing a particular set of values on an unsuspecting world.  Call us conceited, indeed; this song is the sort of thing that make other free societies — the UK, Sweden, France — wonder where our sense of perspective went out of whack.  I don’t know which is more surprising, that “Voice of Freedom” got into the Hot 100 at all or that it didn’t climb higher.

That six and one

TavaresBadTimes.jpg In slot #47, there’s Tavares, who in 1976 were worried that heaven might be missing an angel, but here are only trying to make ends meet in “Bad Times“.  This is a hard thing to doconvincingly when your ensemble sounds smoother than vanilla, and as a result, the lyrics to this song feel largely superficial.  There’s the occasional atonal flourish that tries to ground the frustrated lyrics with the disco, but all in all, it’s not really enough to make for an urban blight anthem.  Still, it sounds nice, and it’s certainly danceable.

I get all choked up inside

BonniePointerCan'tHelp.jpgBonnie Pointer of the Pointer Sisters had something of a solo career, of which “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” (#40) is an unfortunate reminder.  It’s a breathy, hyperactive disco interpretation of the doo-wop classic by The Four Tops that makes you want to take Quaaludes.  Bonnie extracts all the soul out of it, straining to keep pace with the racing tempo, and instead of the tension of a frustrated lover, I hear the anxiety of maybe not turning the lyrics sheet in time.  Even the bell and staccato blurting sax solos don’t really add anything necessary to this version.  Seriously, go listen to The Four Tops.

There’s a light in your eye that keeps shining

Led-Zeppelin-Fool-In-The-Rain-189812Leave it to Led Zeppelin to construct something that grabs a listener’s attention with something that just sounds different. In this case it’s “Fool in the Rain“, which landed at #21.  I suspect that this high performance has a lot to do with the fact that it’s Led Zeppelin, a very popular established act, than the quality of the song.  Don’t get me wrong, I really like what I’m hearing, but I’m surprised that a listening public that put Captain & Tennille on the top of the charts would have time for something as challenging as this.  Let’s just call it the Fleetwood Mac phenomenon; people will tolerate unusual music from a band that’s already got a history of hits behind them.  Anyway, the classic rock samba interlude in the middle, sounding like someone crawling with fleas, is quite a cacophonous revelation, and jibes well with the frustration that a neglected lover would have, feverishly seeing his girl only in his dreams.  It’s ambiguous whether his being on the wrong block is a shaggy dog story — listen to this funny story, babe — or whether it’s an existential thing that he’s dating the wrong girl.  Whichever, it’s a rousing revelation of an ending, and I feel good for him, whatever it is he’s realized in the end.

And then there’s “Cruisin'” by Smokey Robinson, at #4, which also deserves its own page.

 

It’s a strange sad affair

PalmerStillBeFriendsOn 2 February, 1980, Can We Still Be Friends” by Robert Palmer peaked at #52.

Before you listen to “Can We Still Be Friends” as performed by Robert Palmer, you should go listen to the original by Todd Rundgren, which hit #29 in 1978.

You may not agree with me, but I hope you can appreciate why I think the Robert Palmer version is a pale imitation.  Don’t get me wrong, he at least approaches covering a song the right way — this version is recognizable to people who know the original, but it’s different enough that you can tell it’s a different interpretation.  The problem I have is that Robert Palmer is just stumbling clumsily through the lyrics.  The original is sad, but liltingly light; it feels like a phone conversation between two people who have spent a lot of time together — have gone to Hell together — and have grown apart, who are ready to go live their separate lives, but still like each other enough to be happy together as, well, friends.  The Robert Palmer version is slow and plodding, as if sung drunkenly by a moony wall street type who’s been turned down for a third date.  Todd Rundgren wants to get on with his life; Robert Palmer just wants to get back into her life, regardless of what he’s saying.

Regardless, even Robert Palmer’s version sounds more sincere than the version by Rod Stewart released in 1984.  Ugh.

 

London, you’re my home

Inmates.pngOn 26 January, 1980, “Dirty Water” by The Inmates peaked at #51.

This is how you don’t do a cover song.  Clearly The Inmates really liked the gritty depiction of Boston in “Dirty Water” and felt that the dank riverside, frustrated women, and hints at the career of a serial killer resonated for people living through London during the recession of the late 70s.  I think, though, that their appreciation went a bit too far because their performance is only superficially different from the original by the Standells.  Sure the tempo is different and the instrumentation is kind of different, but all in all, it’s a straight-up homage with not enough variation to justify the remake.  Even the snarling vocal delivery is the same.  Why listen to this when you can listen to The Standells?

Accept me for what I am

JWarnes Don'tMakeMeOver.pngOn 26 January, 1980, “Don’t Make Me Over” by Jennifer Warnes peaked at #67.

Let’s talk about cover songs, because I sure don’t want to talk about “Don’t Make Me Over” by Jenifer Warnes any more than I have to.  The first thing you need to know is that this is a cover of a Burt Bacharach song originally performed by Dionne Warwick.  In fact it’s Dionne Warwick’s first song, and she pushed it all the way to #21.  Jennifer Warnes got it to #67, which is still pretty good, but clearly it’s not the song itself that’s the hit.  Unlike Don McLean’s “American Pie” which not even a dreadful Madonna interpretation could keep out of the top 40 (even without a commercial release in the States!), this song needs a good performance to be a big hit.  And Jennifer Warnes doesn’t do that.

Doing a cover of a song is tough.  Ideally, an artist will do the song justice; this involves performing the song similarly enough to the original that listeners will recognize it, take it seriously, and respect it… but it also involves doing something new to the song that reinterprets it in a way that adds value.  Otherwise, why listen to the cover, if you can listen to the (better) original?  Jennifer Warnes fails to add anything new and worthwhile to “Don’t Make Me Over”.  Her voice can’t compete with Dionne Warwick’s and though this interpretation takes out that late-50s angelic choir of backup singers, it doesn’t add anything musically that makes this version memorable.

There’s really only one thing that Jennifer Warnes did right — she chose to redo a song that had largely faded in people’s memories.  If “American Pie” had not been such the cultural touchstone of American music that it is, maybe Madonna could have gotten away with her treacly-sweet music box version of it because fewer people would remember the original.  But no, people remember Don McLean’s version and castigated Madonna, rightly, for debasing a good song.  Jennifer Warnes picked a much less beloved song.  I doubt many of her listeners had heard Dionne Warwick’s version even once since 1970, so few people were likely to have been actively comparing her to Warwick.  That doesn’t excuse her inability to do anything interesting with the song.  Madonna may have murdered “American Pie”, but her version was, at least, interesting in its badness.  Warnes’s “Don’t Make Me Over” is just forgettable.

Your love won’t pay my bills

the-flying-lizards-money-virginOn 19 January, 1980, “Money (That’s What I Want)” by The Flying Lizards peaked at #50.

Before you listen to “Money (That’s What I Want)” by The Flying Lizards, you have to listen to the original version by Barrett Strong; otherwise nothing I say about this song will make sense.

OK, now you’ve gone and done that, listen to The Flying Lizards version.

At this point you’re probably wondering what you just heard.  From the first clanging drumbeats to the slightly flat twangs of a melody all the way through the cold, mechanical delivery of the lyrics, you’re probably thinking that this is the absolute opposite of the Barrett Strong version of the song.  You’re absolutely right:  this is anti-soul.  Synthesizers have gotten a reputation for being soulless and robotic, and musicians like Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire, who pioneered their use as the driving element in something approaching popular music, didn’t do the instrument any favors.  Hard rockers saw the synthesizer as, well, synthetic, and disco boys and girls thought the sounds they made too flat and dull to be worth dancing to.  Given the state of electronic music in the last 70s, it was hard to argue with them.  So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

That’s what the Flying Lizards did.  They embraced the  criticisms of electronic music and declared that even with with instrumentation settling into the uncanny valley, a great song would still be great, and the instrumental weirdness would give a new quality to the song’s meaning.  Make it all the weirder with the main vocals delivered in a cold calculating manner by someone trying hard to sound like Zsa Zsa Gabor, background vocals delivered by a Weimaraner with a bad cold, and have a bridge that sounds like all the instruments are falling apart, and you have a nasty but catchy critique of capitalism run rampant.  Does Barrett Strong really sound like the kind of person who is bent on making money at any cost?  Of course not!  He’s got too much soul!  But someone who wants to be Zsa Zsa Gabor?  Listen to her spit out “Just give me money!”  That’s soulless acquisitiveness.

Now… imagine a whole album that sounds like this.  It would be intolerable, wouldn’t it?  Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the Flying Lizards.  What worked as a brilliant idea for a charting novelty song gets very very tiresome when it’s stretched to ten songs in a row, including covers of “Summertime Blues” and “Mandelay Song”.  As a counter-cultural protest movement, the Flying Lizards were critically acclaimed.  As a chart sensation, they outstayed their welcome quickly and floated off to obscurity.  And unlike Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, and other challenging art bands of the time that never had much popular traction, they weren’t creative enough to accumulate a core underground fanbase to keep them going.  So they remain a curious novelty, but clearly one that had something of zeitgeist value; “Money (That’s What I Want)” has shown up on a surprising number of retro movie soundtracks, including The Wedding Singer and Charlie’s Angels.

You came up on me like a landslide

RaittOn 12 January 1980, “You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming by Bonnie Raitt peaked at #73. 

I suppose that “You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming” is intended to be a rip-roaring road-trip anthem, something along the lines of “Born to Be Wild“, but I’m just not feeling it.  Don’t get me wrong — the lyrics are clever:  There’s something simultaneously smart and racy about a line like “In all this heat it’s a job keepin’ cool, and I could fry an egg on you” that makes you know you’re listening to something more than your usual radio-fodder.  But when Bonnie Raitt sings that she had a Thunderbird outside that she wants to light, the way she does sounds more like she’s got something smoother and tamer, like, I don’t know… a silver Honda Accord.  I can’t really blame her though; the song was written and recorded a year earlier by  Robert Palmer, and that version is even less rocking than this one.  I don’t know if the song’s just not rugged enough to really rise to its aspirations or if Robert and Bonnie aren’t the right singers to be growling about frying eggs on their navigator’s abs, but either way, this song falls a bit flat.

We only read you when you write

ShipsOn 5 January 1980, “Ships” by Barry Manilow was at #64, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #9 in 1979. 

Because he’s been the target of so many jokes, it’s hard to talk about Barry Manilow without any prejudice, but really listening to “Ships” doesn’t do much to dispel those prejudices either.  It’s all the overwrought drama that you come to expect from him.  The lyrics at least try to be interesting.  Instead of the broken-hearted love song you might brace for when that forlorn trumpet pulses over the gentle piano, it’s a lament at the emotional gap that develops between parents and their adult children, drawing a comparison to ships passing in the night.  I’m not sure the simile works — ships in the night don’t really have any reason to care much about each other, whereas family members really should. Ships in the night certainly don’t “smile and say it’s all right” when they communicate their positions over the radio.

So, instead of going on any more because I really can’t get any traction on this song mentally or emotionally, I’ll pass on one of those Barry Manilow jokes:  Here’s “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow” by Ray Stevens, whose ficus plant has lost its will to live.

“Ships” was written and originally performed by Ian Hunter, in a similarly slow, sappy, and lugubrious manner, albeit in a raspier voice and with some backup singers. I’m not sure that Manilow did any damage to it, but he sure didn’t improve on it.

All my friends say I’ll survive

Broken Hearted MeOn 5 January 1980, “Broken Hearted Me” by Anne Murray was at #82, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #12 in 1979. 

There’s only so much pain you can feel at the supermarket.  These days you can hear pretty much anything over the loudspeakers while you’re comparing the merits of various brands of tomato sauce; I’ve heard “Forget You“, which I think is pretty edgy for Safeway, for instance.  Back in 1980, you couldn’t tell off your ex in so direct a manner, at least not at the supermarket, or in your dentist’s waiting room, or even at a garage while paying for your oil change.  For civil but effective send-offs, you needed something like Anne Murray’s “Broken Hearted Me“.

Anne tells her ex how ruined her life is since he left.  She tells us about how she goes through the motions of her days, playing the game of being a normal person, dating people whose names she can’t even remember, and being reassured by everyone that she’s not a damaged person, that she’ll survive.  But she knows, and we know because of faint quiver in her voice, that it’s not true, that she’s never going to be the same person.

Really, I shouldn’t like this song.  It sounds exactly like the watered down, overly-sentimental mass-market music I despise out of most artists.  Sure, Anne Murray’s voice is sweet and more emotional than most, but on the whole this song should be forgettable.

But there is magic in this song (if anything you could hear at the orthodontist’s in 1980 could have magic).  The magic is in the lyrics.  Anne Murray does her gosh-darnedest (because no words stronger than that could cross the lips of someone as angelic as Anne Murray, I mean, look at that hair!) to make her ex feel bad about how bad she feels.  She could have said, “When you hear this song, I hope you’ll see that everything worth having was me.”  But she won’t say that; instead, she says that she hopes he’ll see that “Time won’t heal a broken hearted me.”  She’s bitter and she’s going to bare her scars for everyone to see and hear as they put their Ragu in the cart humming gently to themselves.

For what it’s worth, this is actually a cover; the original was released in 1978 by England Dan and John Ford Coley.  Apart from it being sung by a man and backed by a slightly more dramatic arrangement, it’s essentially the same song.  Anne’s voice is better suited to the material, though; she’s more vulnerable and less whiny, and this is a song that shouldn’t be served up whiny.

Thoughts fly back to the breakup

RainbowSinceYouBeenOn 5 January 1980, “Since You Been Gone” by Rainbow was at #94, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #57 in 1979. 

Before this week, I’d never heard of Rainbow, let alone “Since You Been Gone,” and I’ll admit that with a name like Rainbow, I was expecting disco.  Lame disco.  But that’s not what I got when I visited Youtube.  Instead I got a fun, if not exceptional, classic rock band belting out a fun, if not exceptional, breakup song.  The lyrics are smart; instead of telling us how much he loves her, the singer belts out his angst about waking up in the middle of the night and going out to stand under a streetlight with memories of a bitter Dear John letter in his head.  It’s sad and angry and smarter than I was expecting, and though I’m not rushing to Amazon to download it, I can understand why the youth of America wanted to listen to it enough to get it into the Hot 100.

But the bigger surprises came when I went to Wikipedia.  The band centered on Ritchie Blackmoore, previously of Deep Purple, and Ronnie James Dio, who has quite a following in the metal world.  By 1979, Dio had left the band, but Cozy Powell had already joined the group as drummer, and appears on “Since You Been Gone”.  Yeah, fine, this isn’t exactly a super group, but Rainbow nonetheless has a pretty good pedigree, and I’m surprised that I’d not stumbled on them earlier.

The surprises didn’t stop there, though.  It turns out that “Since You Been Gone” was written and first performed by Russ Ballard, who’s a pretty prolific song writer; we’ll be hearing a few more of his songs as we progress through the 80s. After clicking on the link above, you can check out Russ Ballard’s original here.  I personally prefer Rainbow’s version; I think the glam stylings of Ballard’s original haven’t aged well, whereas Rainbow still rocks.