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.

 

 

 

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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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Let that rhythm get into you

JacksonRockWithYou.pngOn 9 February, 1980, “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson peaked at #1.

It’s only in retrospect that we, or at least I, find it strange to think of Michael Jackson as seductive.  For much of my adult life, I knew of Michael Jackson as either weird, because that’s what he looked like on TV, or as 12, because that’s what he sounded like on the radio station my parents listened to.  For a while from, say, 1975 to 1984, he was not exactly a sex symbol, but certainly an attractive guy who could deliver lyrics like those in “Rock With You” without coming across as creepy.  If you buy the argument that most rock songs that aren’t obviously about something else are actually about sex, this song is about lots and lots of sex. The thought of lots and lots of sex with 1990 Michael Jackson is repulsive.  The thought of lots and lots of sex with 1980 Michael Jackson is totally reasonable.

So let’s get past the visuals of Michael Jackson and just listen to his delivery of these lyrics, silky-smooth with just enough occasional friction to create an adventurous frisson that lets you know that a night of rocking with MJ is going to be quite an experience.  The result is what disco was really designed for — to serve as a enabler for dancing and seducing, interesting enough to keep your attention, but not distracting enough to take your mind off of your dancing partner/seductee.  With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that “Rock With You” went to number one, but it also makes sense that it’s not one of Michael Jackson’s best songs — it doesn’t have the theatrical fullness of “Thriller” or the creepy undercurrent of “Billie Jean” or the social consciousness of “Black or White”.  But that’s not its job; it’s a great dance song, that’s all, and it triumphs in that.

 

9 February 1980 Overview

Eleven songs peaked on 2 February 1980.

Softly we met with a kiss

AerosmithRemember.jpgRemember (Walking in the Sand)” by Aerosmith, a blues-rocking cover of the debut single by the Shangri-Las peaked at #67.  Whereas the original sounds funereal, Aerosmith gave it a sharper bite by wisely dropping the moronic, naively maudlin vocal lead-in and making the chorus something of a rockabilly shuffle. It’s still overdone, but less ridiculous, which succeeds in doing what a cover should do:  reinterpret a song but not to the extent that it’s no longer memorable.  Not my cup of tea, but it serves its purpose.

Share my popcorn and jellybeans

SisterSledgeGottoLove.png After Prince’s genre-defying “I Wanna Be Your Lover” we needed someone to remind us what mainstream disco sounds like, and Sister Sledge does so suitably with “Got to Love Somebody” (#64).  Though it’s straight up disco with the twonky bass, standard brass section, and far more singers than are necessary, Sister Sledge do better than the average disco group in the topics they sing about and the lyrics they use in doing so.  This an empowering song that takes the specifics of loneliness without overselling loneliness as the end of the world– being the only hand in the popcorn box at the movies — and then the change in attitude that, presumably, will fix the situation.  The song isn’t making any promises other than that this girl is going to have fun looking for her next beau at the discos than she was watching rom-coms alone.

You’ve probably been crying forever

RodStewartTalkAboutIt.pngSometimes you have to be careful with YouTube.  I Don’t Want to Talk About It” by Rod Stewart (#46) is a case in point:  he rerecorded it in 1989, and I nearly reviewed the wrong version.  This one is acoustic, and as a result feels a lot earthier, and more sincere, not adjectives I normally associate with Rod.  His trademark gravelly voice works here to make him sound like he’s on the verge of tears, a vulnerability I really appreciate in a good ballad.  And it fits the lyrics:  in consoling an ex who has been hurt in some way, he’s absolving her, hinting strongly that he still loves her, sure, but not wanting to linger an the wrongs she’s done him.  The guitar work is nice, too (though I could have passed on the wonky key change toward the end), so all In all, a pleasant surprise.

Given any day there’s a jet flying somewhere

JonStewartLostHer.pngJohn Stewart is a former member of The Kingston Trio, and given “Lost Her in the Sun” (#34), he must have been the one with the boring voice.  Nevertheless, good songwriting and good delivery overcome vocal failings, and John Stewart delivers on this score.  “Lost Her in the Sun” is an aching ballad about a lost love; he wonders what he’s done that his girl should fly away without letting him know why, and he may never know.  He does know it’s going to hurt forever, like cold wind cutting deep into his soul.  And he knows, whatever it was, it’s his fault he’s lost something wonderful — he’s lost her in the warmth and light of the sun, after all.  Really this song is about as perfect as a two-verse lost love song can get.

Dance with you, romance with you

RufusChakaLoveWhatYouFeel.pngFull disclosure:  I was four years old in 1980, which means that like some of the young ‘uns out there today who are unaware that Sting got his start in a band called The Police, I was unaware that Chaka Khan started out with Rufus (who isn’t actually a person at all, but just the name of the band). They had a string of top-40 soul and disc hits through the 70s, of which “Do You Love What You Feel” (#30) was the final bookend.  Lyrically, it’s nothing special.  Musically, it’s fun, but not doing enough to really be memorable.

“Why Me” by Styx (#26) deserves its own entry.

Well, I wouldn’t stop for a million bucks

HayesDon'tLetGo.pngDon’t Let Go” by Isaac Hayes (#18) is his last hit.  It’s a bit unusual for him in that it doesn’t feature his voice the way you’d expect.  He’s pushed back in the mix, so much so that the jaunty funk guitar seems to get top billing over him.  Don’t get me wrong, this song is infectious; I dare you to listen to this without getting restless legs.  It’s just not a good showcase for Isaac Hayes.  Really, this should be a Grace Jones song (a la “Pull Up to the Bumper“, which fell one spot shy of the Hot 100 in 1981) — she can put the sultry sexiness that a choppy bouncy song needs, whereas Isaac Hayes is just too smooth for this kind of beat.

You’re a different space in time

WarwickDejaVu.pngSpeaking of Isaac Hayes, he’s one of the talents behind “Deja Vu” by Dionne Warwick (#15); he wrote it with Adrienne Anderson, and Barry Manilow produced the whole album.  Perhaps this is why the song sounds like living purple lame.  Listening to it, can’t you just imagine Dionne standing on a stage in, say, Las Vegas, wearing a purple lame gown, dripping in white rhinestones, exhaling this east ditty as a bunch of cigar-chomping businessmen sit around totally ignoring her?  I say ignoring her, because the way she delivers this song is barely substantial; it’s more a well-practiced breathing pattern than a series of words with natural inflection or even meaning.  like so much cigar smoke and twinkling light, it drifts around in the background, greasing social skids but leaving not much of substance in its wake.

In the public eye, giving someone else a try

tom-petty-and-the-heartbreakers-dont-do-me-like-that-1979.jpgDon’t Do Me Like That” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (#10) is another vulnerable rock song, albeit with a bit of a macho twang to it.  Here’s a guy who’s trying hard not to admit he’s in love with the girl he’s seeing, and he’s tryin’ to play it all cool warning her if she strays she’s going to get hurt, just as much as he would.  It’s a fine example of a guy transitioning from the free-wheeling womanizer to the marrying kind.  I’m not sure exactly why this is top ten material, but the competition wasn’t all that strong, as we’ve been seeing. If it sounds a bit on the high-school anthem side, like, oh, “Centerfold by the J. Geils Band, you’re not alone:  Wikipedia tells us that Tom Petty nearly gave this song to J. Geils, thinking it sounded more like their style than his.

All the debutantes in Houston

EaglesLongRun.pngAt #8, we have another loping bit of somnolent rocking from The Eagles, “The Long Run“, which isn’t making me like them any more than I did before.  It’s another rambling litany of related sentences that don’t get much further than establishing that the singer was a cad, and now he’s not, and it’s because he’s in love, and she should treat herself better, too.  If it were a little more drunk it would sound just like “Heartache Tonight“; there may have been room on the charts for them both in 1980, but I certainly don’t have the energy for both.

And finally, “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson spent its last week at #1, and every #1 deserves its own page.

I want to be your mother and your sister, too

PrinceLover.pngOn 2 February, 1980, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” by Prince peaked at #11.

It’s hard to believe, but for two years it looked like Prince might be a one-hit wonder.  His first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was the only top 40 single off his second album, Prince. For You, his first album scored no hits; neither did either of his next two albums, Dirty Mind and Controversy.  It wasn’t until the end of 1982, when “1999” broke the mold for what an R&B singer could sound like, that Prince announced that he was on the charts to stay. It didn’t help matters that in the early 80s, Prince was giving uninformatively coy interviews like this one on national television, but his reticent personality aside, he sounded like a one-hit-wonder, and his output put him on the track to be one.

I personally think that Prince was actually the cliché that people throw around too often without thinking — he was ahead of his time.  But not in the usual sense that he created something that other people followed.  Instead, I mean that in 1979, when this song was recorded, Prince was working in a musical environment that didn’t suit him.  On “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, he’s trying to play disco, but it’s not a disco that sounds like the rest of disco.  Sure, it mixes in just fine with all the other disco that was being played at the dawn of the 1980s, but it sounds different.  You hear this sandwiched between contemporary Donna Summer and BeeGees songs, and your ears perk up — this is not your standard disco song! — and then you go back to the litany of syncopated violin bursts.

Disco, and even soul, were too small and constrained for Prince in the early 80s, not just in terms of its structure and instrumentation, but also in terms of its scope.  Disco is meant for a smoky dance club with a mirror ball and dry ice, and despite his size, Prince’s showmanship was never going to fit into that kind of atmosphere.  His stage personality was too vibrant, too emotional, too explosive and sexy to stand only four feet above its audience.  Prince had to break out, musically and physically, from the constraints of a club; he really needed to be the R&B equivalent of an arena rock band, Motown’s Kiss.  Such a thing existed, but it wasn’t exactly popular:  George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic was a feast for the senses, filling an arena with all sorts of incredible musical and theatrical craziness; critically well-regarded, it only scored two top-40 hits in the years before Prince had his first hit.  The stage wasn’t set for soul to be bigger than any room that tried to hold it.

You can hear it in the music on “I Wanna Be Your Lover”:  The taut, tight guitar that starts the song’s pulse; Prince’s falsetto that here sounds genuine, not ridiculous, straining at the bit… every time Prince goes into “I don’t want to pressure you baby, the tension in the song builds through the chorus and wants to burst into a flare of music, but then backs down to that basic pulse again.  In the future, Prince wouldn’t have those constraints:  he’ll be more mature, less constrained, and the nature of how music is produced and consumed will give him the space he needs to be the superstar we remember him as.

2 February 1980 Overview

 

OK, so, after quite a lot of thought and a comment by a reader, I’ve decided that the original plan was a bit too ambitious.  So I’m reformatting.  Instead of doing an entire page on each song that hit the Hot 100 in the 80s — an endeavor that could last more than four times as long as the 80s themselves — I’m going to do an overview of each week with a paragraph on each of the lesser songs, and then do a page on each of the more interesting songs.  I’m finding it’s rare that I have more than two paragraphs to say about many of these songs anyway, and I want to get to the more interesting stuff as quickly as possible. Still, I’m going to try to stick to the original format as much as possible, albeit in a condensed form.  The same links to videos, the same headers featuring lyrics from the songs when possible, and the same level of snarkiness.  The only downside is that these overview pages are going to be a bear to construct.  Here’s the first one.

Thirteen songs peaked on 2 February 1980.  The following I’ve already talked about:

So here’s what the rest of the week looked like:

They’re a dozen for a dime

RobertJohnLonelyEyes.pngPeaking at #41, just outside the hit zone, is “Lonely Eyes” by Robert John, who clearly has a thing for eyes, because his previous hit was “Sad Eyes” which made it to #1 in 1979.  “Lonely Eyes” is superficially triumphal, but it’s about a woman who hangs out at bars or discos and slinks from one one-night-stand to another.  The delivery, with its gentle lope and weepy violins, takes up a fitting tone, both danceable and world-weary.  This is the kind of music sung by a singer and played by musicians who have seen too many nights, just like that emotionally isolated woman, driven by habit or need, underappreciated for their talents.  The irony that this song didn’t quite score a hit only underscores the sweet sadness of the song.  This is a pleasant surprise for me.

It was one of those nights

ELOLastTrainThen we have a compelling guitar riff backed by a suitably funky pace, and I think that we may have something special… until I realize it’s the perfectly nonsense “Last Train to London” by The Electric Light Orchestra (#39).  It baffles me how anyone took the grating falsetto vocals (“I really want tonight to last forever!”) that epitomized disco seriously, particularly when they’re delivering totally uninspired lyrics (“I really want to be with you!”).  There are the requisite violin bursts and then what would be an utterly boring keyboard solo if it weren’t for the fact that it’s some sort of broken-glass orchestra noise they’re using, presaging how dance is going to merge with new wave soon.  There’s a last train to London, I’m not sure if he gets on it or stays with the girl he’s singing to, but I am sure I don’t much care.

I’m caring, sharing everything I’ve got

SantanaYouKNowThatILoveYouI somehow missed that Santana put out albums in the 80s, but given how uninspiring “You Know That I Love You” (#35) is, perhaps that’s not surprising.  There’s nothing here to suggest that this is the same musician who made “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman” the epitome of Latin rock.  How did Santana get so… uncool?  This is a lame, uninspired song that isn’t even worthy of being a fifth single off of a Cheap Trick album.  This was the only single off of Santana’s Marathon album, and that’s probably a good thing.

Please can I see you every day

VoicesCheapTrickSpeaking of Cheap Trick, here they are with “Voices” (#32), which is about as close to a stalker song as you can get without actually being a stalker song. I don’t normally like Cheap Trick because they feel sort of superficial and smarmy, making themselves out to be tougher than they are, but really just sounding like a light-weight Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.  On this song it works, though, because the desperation of the protagonist goes well with that mock-tough, mock-sweet tone.  This guy is at one and the same time begging his girl to love him and trying to convince her by stating as fact that she does indeed love him.  Those voices in her ear should be telling her to back away slowly, but until Bon Jovi comes along, these guys and Journey are about the best you were going to get in the arena rock category, so I guess you have to make the most of it.

I like what you like

OJaysForeverMineWe’re not going to hear much from The O’Jays in the 1980s.  Their hey-day was the 60s and 70s, and there’s not going to be much room for the molasses-rich soul vocals they were soaking their records in. This is a shame because even when they’re singing scary lyrics like “don’t you ever think about leaving”, like they do here on “Forever Mine” (#28), they sound so dignified and smooth, like scarlet velvet.  And the passion with which he sings about how she exceeds all the loves he’s had in the past makes you feel it, you know, that she is something special. I don’t know that the singer and the object of his affection are made for each other the way he says, but the song makes you want to think that they are.

I kept the feelings to myself

FoghatThirdTime.pngAnother classic band we’re not going to see much of again is Foghat, whose clumsily titled “Third Time Lucky (First Time I Was a Fool)” hit #23.  I kind of wish they’d go into the details of the three loves this guy is singing about — once bitten, twice shy, third time lucky.  In the lyrics, the first time sounds like he’s a jerk, writing to her that he’d never forget her and now he can’t remember his name.  Maybe being a fool is treating her so badly.  But that doesn’t sound like he’s been bitten, but rather that he was doing the biting.  Whatever, I’m sure she’s fine.  Then the second time he’s too shy to act on his feelings, which is indeed a disaster… unless you’re a stalker like the guy in the Cheap Trick song, in which case maybe it’s better you keep your distance.  I mean, really, this week guys in the charts really come off as jerks:  stalkers, creepy seducers, and this guy who thinks that somehow he’s the victim of two love affairs, one of which didn’t happen and the other of which was his own insensitive fault.

And then there’s “I Want to Be Your Lover” by Prince at #11, which I’ll cover on its own.  And that’s an overview of 2 February 1980.

 

 

 

 

Is this really your real phone number?

SwitchWe’ve finally made it out of January of 1980, folks!

On 2 February, 1980, “I Call Your Name” by Switch peaked at #83.

In 1963, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons released “Walk Like a Man“, which, in the grand scheme of things is a pretty good song.  It’s message is undermined a bit by the fact that Frankie Valli, while singing about how he’ll walk like a man, is failing to sing like a man, what with his amazing piercing falsetto.  He’s a good singer, don’t get me wrong, and the falsetto works for songs like “Ragdoll” and “Dawn”; it’s just that for “Walk Like a Man” there’s an inherent — and I assume unintended — irony that I can’t imagine people didn’t pick up on.

So, now we have Switch.  These guys are a one-hit wonder, hitting #38 in 1978 with “There’ll Never Be”, and they kept trying until 1984 to score another hit, but never managed.  “I Call Your Name” was the last time they even hit the lower reaches of the Hot 100, peaking at #83.  And it’s got that same inadvertent irony as “Walk Like a Man”.  The song starts with an earnest voiceover, starting with “I used to think about immature things”, said by a guy who sounds like he’s in sixth grade.  Listening to him muse about how he’s gotten past worrying about whether his girl loves him, it’s hard not to snicker when he says, as if it’s a revelation, “I’m a man now!”

Just like if a country has to tell you in its name that it’s a democracy it probably isn’t, if you have to state you’re a man in a song, there’s probably a good argument that you aren’t.

Part of the problem is also that Switch was coming to prominence in the waning days of disco.  There’s really nothing too wrong with the lyrics to this song — some of them are actually pretty good — and I bet if the Jackson Five had performed this in 1974, it would have been a big hit.  But for a struggling soul band to try to claw its way up to the top on saccharine-cute disco in 1979 was a tall order.  And, sure, for every pretty good lyric (“Although I love the sunshine, I’ll still accept the rain”) there’s a turn of phrase that makes you wonder if the writers actually speak English in their normal lives.  “Doggone”?  Who says “doggone” in any seriousness?  Maybe “I Call Your Name” is deliberately ironic, and so successful that it’s indistinguishable from a clumsily penned sincere song…. I suppose it’s possible, but I doubt it.  I mean… who conducts an experiment in irony for over 7 minutes of valuable radio air time?