Overview of 12 April 1980

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

Come the night, we’re in overdrive

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

No more jaguars

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

We’ll both be walking away

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

What’s her name?  I can’t tell ya!

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

Trying so hard not to see

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

Heaven in the morning

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

Your river is fading

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

Gotta run for shelter

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

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

 

 

 

 

Overview of 5 April 1980

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

Suddenly it went astray

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

This funky kind of music just makes you want to move

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

I work on solar power

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

I can’t wish you well anymore

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

Take off your ring

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

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

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

A good man pays his debts

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

You were all of sixteen

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

Dream about me

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

Not my brand

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

I used to love to make you cry

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

 

 

 

Overview of 22 March 1980

There was a whole lot of lovin’ going on in the lower reaches of the top 100 on 22 March 1980.  Starting with…

It’s so hard when I’m feeling on fire

suzannefelliniloveonthephone… a pleasantly weird surprise.  I was expecting “Love on the Phone” by Suzanne Fellini (#87) to be, frankly, dreadful, and probably disco, but what we have, while not exactly spectacular, has a certain do-it-yourself feel that’s kind of reminiscent of early Blondie.  It’s a little bit edgy, as Suzanne suggests she get undressed while talking to her long-distance lover, and the sensualized rat-a-tat of “makin’s” toward the end aren’t exactly rated G, but really, this is pretty chaste as light punk goes; she may be talking dirty, but it’s with a boyfriend out of town.  Regardless, it’s really not like anything else we’ve heard so far, and a younger me probably would have played the heck out of this one mainly because it was different and didn’t take itself too seriously.  Still, I can’t imagine sitting through a whole album of this.

I love you, I le-ove you

engelbert-love-s-only-love-coverI’m having trouble taking “Love’s Only Love” by Engelbert Humperdinck (#83) seriously.  The sappy lounge style it’s sung in doesn’t help matters, but that just makes it bad, not ridiculous.  No, what makes this song ridiculous is the line I used for the header, which happens for the first time at 1:01:  “I love you, I le-ove you.”  I’m not doing it justice, because really, you can’t spell the word love the way Engelbert pronounces it that second time.  Not only does he make it a two-syllable word, but this love has some sort of quasi-French, or more likely, Dutch, accent to it; it sounds sort of like “loaves” without the S.  “Leeuuv”?  “Lowv”?  Whatever it is, it’s the only word in this whole song that matters, and I wonder how the backup singers don’t break up in giggles hearing it.

I don’t want to be a big star

England DanJohnFordInItForLove.pngIn some parallel universe that isn’t all that different from the one we live in, “In It for Love” by England Dan & John Ford Coley (#75) could have been the theme song for a prime-time sit-com.  It has the kind of perky, faux-lounge keyboard that would easily serve as backing to a montage of clips introducing a handful of family members (and the quirky neighbor couple that lives next door).  And really, “In it for Love” wouldn’t be a bad name for a family-oriented comedy series.  That said, with precious few exceptions, it’s hard to take sit com themes seriously as real music, and anything that sounds like them is, by association, pretty forgettable.

It hurts so much more in the night

starland-vocalloving-you-with-my-eyesThe Starland Vocal Band is the band that made having sex during the daytime something naughty, or at least highlighted that peculiarity in “Afternoon Delight”.  So perhaps it’s only natural to expect that musicians with such a narrow range of sexual options would also produce sappy maple-syrup suffused schlock like “Loving You With My Eyes” (#71).  The woman in the song may actually be something of a martyr — she promises not to cry if her guy comes back, even if it’s to say goodbye, but it drips so heavily with overwrought sentiment that it makes my teeth hurt.  Perhaps it’s the vocal; a woman with this sweet a voice sounds like someone who can be hurt easily.  I’m imagining a gravelly-voiced singer, like Kim Carnes, Marianne Faithfull, or Grace Slick, singing this; when a tough woman feels this way, it’s much more believable.

We’re both a little shy, love

GayleIt'sLikeWeNeverSaidGoodbye.jpgAnd here’s Crystal Gayle again, with all of her glorious alien locution in tow, singing “It’s Like We Never Said Goodbye” (#63).  The content is pleasant enough:  everyone likes to think they can have a second chance on the opportunities they missed in the past, and the music is uplifting if not exactly engaging.  And that’s really all I have to say — nothing else about this song stands out to me in any way.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this song stalled at #63, but it shocks me that something so content-less reached #1 on the country charts.  I mean, it doesn’t even sound like country.

“Computer Game”

YMOComputerGame.jpgComputer Game Theme from the Circus” by The Yellow Magic Orchestra (#60), on the other hand, is completely different from even the few new wave songs we’ve heard so far.  It’s from Japan; it’s an instrumental; it starts with uncoordinated electronic noises; and it’s not particularly danceable.  I’m tempted to label it a novelty song, but it’s definitely not a novelty — the guys who made this track were serious about making this kind of music, in much the same way Kraftwerk and (I guess) Vangelis were (at roughly the same time).  What we’re hearing here is early electronica, music the point of which is listening to the interesting things synthesizers can do:  electronic music designed to stretch the abilities of noise-making.  As a side-note, this some is also evidence of how quickly computers became part of the collective psyche.  Space Invaders was the first hit arcade game; it was released in 1978, and here we are less than two years later, with a song on the charts that sounds like Space Invaders.  I don’t want to overstate how groundbreaking this song was, but I have to think it was very influential given how big synthpop became and how much hip hop borrowed from synthpop.  And, seriously, the Yellow Magic Orchestra went on Soul Train to promote the single, and were probably the weirdest thing that had ever happened to Soul Train until then.

Violet lightning

jeffersonstarshipgirlwiththehungryeyesJefferson Starship is back with “Girl With the Hungry Eyes” (#55), which is something of a hyperkinetic post-apocalyptic lust song, in which a guy who (despite what Einstein’s theories say) can travel at the speed of light meets the daughter of the overlord, who has a perfect fit with perfect lips.  It sounds like a match made in heaven, but that’s debatable because there’s a killing floor involved somehow, but whatever, they hook up after all her friends have gone home, so it’s all good.   In tone it sounds something like a classic rock band trying to get an edge in on the pogoing punk crowd, and come to think of it, that may be exactly what was happening.  It’s fun, and it reminds me in a very good way of Hawkwind’s “Quark, Strangeness, and Charm“, both as a space-aged love song and for it’s fast-paced lightheartedness (and for name-dropping Einstein), but with a deeper instrumentation.

“What I Like About You” by The Romantics (#49) deserves its own entry

When does the heartache end?

david-gates-where-does-the-lovin-go-elektra-3Where Does the Lovin’ Go“, asks David Gates at #46.  I don’t know that I can be bothered to try to answer that question.  And I’m having trouble being bothered to discuss this particular song, because it sounds like so many other sickly-sweet someone-done-someone-wrong songs, that it gets hard to say anything intelligent about one that’s so uninteresting as this. Instead, I’m going to ask this:  Where do all the forgettable albums go?  Back when I was a kid, every record store (there were record stores then, lots of them) had a box or basket or some other display item that held all the non-sellers.  They were worth looking through because sometimes you’d find Shriekback or Gang of Four there.  Often they were full of albums that were supposed to sell big, but didn’t; I remember in particular seeing a lot of Boz Skaggs in cut-out bins.  I imagine David Gates filled a cut-out bin or two in his time, too.  But what happens to forgettable albums now that we buy so much of our music digitally?  It’s an existential question; they sit in the cloud on Amazon or iTunes, but if no one buys them, if no one remembers to even look for them, can they be said to really be?  It’s even weirder than the falling tree in the forest, because the tree undeniably is an object, even if no one is there to hear it fall.  But an album that is entirely digital, with no physical presence… it makes no noise if no one is there to hear it, and can it really be said to be there at all if no one looks for it?  Like the loving that ceases to exist when it goes away (because love, not being tangible, doesn’t really go anywhere), those forgotten tracks sort of phase out of reality into some sort of cultural quantum state, perhaps never to truly exist again…

Someone must’ve kicked you around some

Petty Refugee.jpgRefugee” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers breaks us out of the sub-40s right up to #15, with blues-rock guitar and vocals delivered in a half-Dylan style.  I don’t know what’s going on in the song, but it sounds pretty scary:  there’s this girl and she’s been kidnapped, tied up, kicked around, and Tom’s all nonchalant about it. Actually, now I think I do know what’s going on:  she’s had a hard life so far and she’s worn-down, tired out, and suffering over it… and then Tom Petty comes around and tells her that life is hard, and it’s time to get past the past and not rely on the world to give her the dignity she needs.  It’s an interesting combination of self-reliance and casual indifference that passes as a simple motto for life, or at least the foundation for getting back on one’s feet.  I’m not a fan, but I give it kudos for going past clichés to get at ideas that are more complex than those that show up in your radio-standard pop song.

Deeper than any forest primeval

Fogelberg Longer.pngQueen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” did everyone a great service by keeping three songs out of the #1 spot:  “Do That To Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille, “Yes I’m Ready” by Teri Desario and K.C., and this, “Longer” by Dan Fogelberg.  Of the three, this is probably the best, and not only because it has a flugelhorn solo in it.  As an extended comparison of love to the marvels of nature — the innumerable stars and fish, the deep beauty of untouched forest, and the relief brought by fire in winter and rain in spring — it genuinely has poetic lyrics.  It’s calming and soothing, which makes it a fine soundtrack to a quiet afternoon with your lover on the patio… or for a ride on an elevator to visit your ophthalmologist.

 

 

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 the week of 8 March 1980

The week of 8 March is, barring one escapist jaunt, truly dreadful; thankfully only seven songs peaked, so we can get this over with and go on to something better.

All the boys are jealous of me

Rockets Desire2.pngImagine you’re in a band called Rockets and you’re writing “Desire” (#70).  You want it to be a hit really bad; what words immediately jump into your mind? Fire?  Higher?  Wire?  If you came up with all three of those, maybe you should write rock songs, because that’s what Rockets came up with. Once they got done with rhyming the title, they went and rhymed insane and brain; you, do, and view; and street with meet.  These are, quite possibly, the most used rhymes in all of popular music.  Couple that with the most popular theme in popular music — I’m hot for a girl and all the guys wish they were me — and then put that over the most uninteresting musical riff you can think of, and there you have it, the formula for a top 100 hit.  Oh, and pour some sugar on him, too, because that’s not cliché in any way at all.

I’m three quarters home

George Burns 18 Again.jpgIn a completely different vein, we have a very strong candidate for most unlikely single of 1980,” I Wish I Was Eighteen Again“, which peaked at #49 and garnered George Burns a nomination for best male country vocalist.  It’s predictably saccharine-sweet and maybe the backup singers piping in angelic voices are ill-advised, given that George Burns was 84 at the time, but the really inexplicable thing is that I can’t figure out who this single was marketed to.  Octogenarians aren’t a major portion of the consumers of new music, and I have trouble imagining younger audiences buying this, except as a grandparents’ day gift.  Were this more musically interesting — a swan song for an established country musician, like Slim Whitman (20 years younger than George Burns, true, but his last charting country single was released in 1981) — this would make more sense.  But no, instead we have George Burns who probably didn’t realize that for the next 12 years, he was going to end pretty much every appearance of his on any stage, live or recorded, by singing this loping drivel.  I can’t explain it — the singles charts are a weird place, and this is a prime piece state’s evidence.

I don’t even mind if we get wet

Streisand Kiss me in the RainIt’s possible to stretch a metaphor too far, and “Kiss Me in the Rain” by Barbra Streisand (#37) does precisely that.  The song is about a woman who has lived through hard, heart-breaking times; she’s singing to a lost love who is back (I guess), and she wants him to rekindle their love in the midst of her shattered life.  This is a fine theme for a song, and the metaphor of being kissed in the rain isn’t a bad one… but that “I don’t mind if we get wet” is too literal to be taken seriously.  Even if it’s a concrete image — they’re literally talking on her front steps in that warm summer rain, and they’re going to kiss in the downpour — it’s still ridiculous.  It makes me imagine her, with her curled locks hanging limp all over her head like a sopping mop, and it’s not flattering, no matter who she’s kissing.

I’ve got to turn my back on you

ManilowWhenIWantedYouFrom Barbra Streisand to Barry Manilow, this was a good week for easy listening adult contemporary, and a bad week for people who dislike abrupt key changes. ‘Cause that’s the main feature of “When I Wanted You” (#20), in which Barry Manilow wheedles about a woman he’s hung up on but has to leave because she doesn’t mean all that much to her.  It’s a theme in love songs that deserves to be explored, and really there’s nothing all that wrong with the song itself (well, the utterly boring instrumentation isn’t winning any awards), but Barry doesn’t sound torn between love and dignified, and there’s certainly no anger when he belts out the mouthful of “how does it feel to feel how I used to feel?”  No, he sounds like he feels the way he always sounds like he feels:  achingly in love.  That only works for the first verse of this song; when the revenge steps in, there needs to be more bite, and Barry has the bite of a Chihuahua.

I think Jamaican in the moonlight

220px-Dirt_Band_American_Dream.jpgBefore staycations were a thing, The Dirt Band was singing about them in “An American Dream” (#13).  The singer is floating off in his mind behind closed eyes to the point that he can’t even hear Linda Ronstadt (which is hard to do, given her ubiquity on the charts in the early 80s).  Without money, you can just close your eyes and travel anywhere you want.  This hillbilly wants to go to Jamaica — I just read A Brief History of Seven Killings, and I think he should go to Aruba instead — to relax on the beach and drink oodles of rum.  And who can blame him?  Maybe Rodney Crowell, who recorded the song first in 1978, but it’s hard to be upset with as straight a cover as this one is.  Anyway, as escapist country songs go, this one’s pretty good.  It has some clever lyrics, and sounds gentle and pleasant.  Next time I staycation, this song is allowed on the soundtrack.

Cheer up, sleepy Jean

MurrayDaydreamAnother cover, this time Anne Murray’s cover of “Daydream Believer” (#12), originally by The Monkees. It’s hard to tell exactly what Anne Murray wanted to do with this song, because it’s practically indistinguishable from the original, lacking only the actual emotions The Monkees put into the lyrics.  Another too-perfect delivery undermining what is otherwise a rather good song.

 

 

I don’t even know how to hold your hand

Yes_I'm_Ready_Teri_DeSario.jpgYes, I’m Ready” by Teri DeSario with K.C. (of K.C. & The Sunshine Band) (#2) is also a cover, this time of a 1965 pop standard originally by Barbara Mason.  In this case, the cover is an improvement over Mason’s curiously warped vocal styling, bending around notes in a way that is jarringly cacophonous.  Don’t get excited for this version, though:  it’s the musical equivalent of dry browned toast.  It’s pleasant enough for a slow dance early in the evening prom, but it’s unlikely to be the song that anyone remembers falling in love to, or even having a first kiss to.  It’s background music that does what background music should do:  stay in the background.

Stay and let me look at you

DiamondSeptember On 1 March, 1980, “September Morn” by Neil Diamond peaked at #4.

Am I the only one who finds Neil Diamond creepy?  Sometimes I think so, because, inexplicably, his songs skyrocket up the charts despite often being skin-crawlingly worrisome.  The first song Neil cranked out that made me feel this way was “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” which, I know from the lyrics, isn’t actually a song about pedophilia, but that’s what the title sounds like, at least when sung in that achy urgent tone that Neil does so nasally. And then we have “September Morn“, which is the other way around — it doesn’t sound creepy until you pay attention to the lyrics; I mean really pay attention to them.

It’s hard to tell from the first verse what the relationship is between the singer and the girl in this song.  She’s there, he hasn’t seen her in a while, and he asks her to stay so he can absorb how she — and he — actually, have changed.  But then, the second verse gets weirder:  he recalls hearing her crying in her room as a child, and notes how much she’s grown up.  This wouldn’t be too weird if they were, say, siblings, or father and daughter… but the chorus is him recalling dancing together all night, like two lovers in a romantic play.  And that’s… icky.  Really icky.  Too icky for me to ignore it over the swooping violins and jingly cymbal.  If someone out there has an explanation for what this song is about that doesn’t involve incest, please (PLEASE!) let me know.

Overview of 1 March 1980

The songs that peaked in the week of 1 March are (except for one) a really uninspiring bunch.  Brace yourself…

Apprehending all my criminal need

WaldenShouldaLovedYa.pngYou almost certainly don’t know Narada Michael Walden for “I Shoulda Loved Ya“, which got to #66 this week; you know him for his production work with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Jermaine Stewart, and a host of other R&B musicians, about which we’ll reserve judgment until they peak later in the 80s.  Listening to “I Shoulda Loved Ya”, it sounds like it belongs in the top twenty tracks of 1987, what with its heavy focus on saxophone, and handclaps urging you to do that mid-80s lurchy dance from side to side. The bass solo in the middle sort of pulls you back to the very late 70s, but all in all, this feels like it slipped through a time warp to warn us of what was to come:  “Do something now or EVERYTHING on the radio will sound like this!”  Actually, I’m being too harsh — this is at least perky and refreshing.  I wish the lyrics were a bit more coherent, because the theme of a guy who realizes he’s mistreated someone he’d been seeing is underutilized (maybe because most musicians don’t want to empathize with cads) and far more interesting than all these guys chasing women who aren’t interested in them, or, worse, so achingly in love with the person they’re with.

Just one lover is all you need to know

TurleyRichardYouMightNeed.pngOr there’s achy, preachy earnestness, like “You Might Need Somebody” by Turley Richards (#54), which ambles in like your junior-high art teacher walking up to you to scold you after some other authority figure broke up a fight.  Only Turley is here to berate you for… what, being anti-social?  The message here is to let someone into your heart, as if most people didn’t want that to begin with, and, really, the few people who don’t aren’t going to reconsider their self-isolation just because someone tells them that everyone needs someone around.  Gee thanks, tell us something we didn’t already know, and try to do it with less somnolent instrumentation.

Travelling down that lonesome road

molly-hatchet-flirtin-with-disaster-1979-front-cover-57732.jpgI’ve never knowingly listened to Molly Hatchet before, and I’d always wondered why Ray Stevens referenced them in”Erik the Awful”.  Looking at their mythologically Teutonic alum covers, I simply assumed that they were a good-spirited heavy metal or glam band.  Nope, they’re southern rock, which explains the Ray Stevens reference, if not the album covers. “Flirtin’ with Disaster” (#42) is pretty much what I expect when I think of southern rock…  mildly rebellious nasal vocals, fast-paced twangy guitars, with a solid solo, and… not much else.  This is what the US was listening to instead of Motorhead — who really knew how to rock — and it’s hard to say we were better for it.

Some things are not better left unsaid

NicoletteLetMeGo.pngI understand that there are lyrics to “Let Me Go, Love“, (#35) but when Nicolette Larson and Michael McDonald sing it, it’s hard to tell, because they sort of mumble the words over each other’s very idiosyncratic voice, so the result sounds like two people warbling alphabet soup out loud in a humid room.  Listen to how “look” sounds like “Luke” in “you’ve got that look in your eyes” and you’ll get an idea of what I mean; all the vowels in this song are a little bit nonstandard, and the result is decidedly alien.  Musically, it’s lazy dreamy, and a little bit jazzy, and not entirely uninteresting. I think this would have been better as a Herb Alpert-like instrumental without the vocals.

I’ll take control of your beautiful mind

CommodoresWonderland.pngWonderland” by The Commodores (#25) is one of those soul songs that can’t decide whether it wants to be sexy or creepy.  The singer’s approach — reassuring the woman he’s met that she’s lucky to meet him, that she shouldn’t be afraid, that he’ll take control of her, that any minute that passes may make the whole endeavor of seduction for naught — reeks of desperation, but that promise of being taken off to a magical wonderland of love sounds so enticing doesn’t it?  If it weren’t for the taxi driver, one might expect the song to turn out to be an episode in a serial murderer’s modus operandi.  Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to turn out that way, and the music is suitably trippy and smooth, so I’ll give it a wary pass on the creepiness.

I suppose I should give “September Morn” by Neil Diamond (#17) its own entry, but I won’t like it.

Let me smell the moon in your perfume

ForbertRomeo.pngTake a good look at Steve Forbert.  Does he look familiar?  If he does, you were probably watching MTv in 1983, not because his videos were showing, but because he had a cameo role in one of 1983’s most memorable videos:  he was Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend in “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”.  Before that, here in 1980, he just missed the top ten with his sweetly lilting “Romeo’s Tune” (#11).  It’s really hard to write a song that sounds and feels both intelligent and innocent without sounding fake or cynical; Steve Forbert has done that here and, looking at what was in the top ten when “Romeo Tune” peaked, he deserved to be in the top ten. He avoids simple clichés, but delivers lines that sound like fresh clichés, turns of phrase — those southern kisses and smelling the moon — that feel like he discovered them instead of created them.  The scene with the king and queen feels like a young adult in love discovering his recently outgrown youth, couching it in the imagery of his childhood fairy tales, but recognizing the need to be staid and boring when adulthood calls.  And the jaunty piano tune and the sweet backup singers emphasize the quiet excitement of not-so-young love.  In a way, this song is too good… how can a musician follow up on it?  And Forbert didn’t.  A dispute with his record company didn’t help, but generally it’s hard to shake the overshadowing effect of a single break-out hit; several other musicians I can think of (and will write about) have had similar flame-outs, and it’s a shame when the charts are so consistently filled with otherwise mediocre stuff. .

Kiss me like you just did

CaptTennilleOneMoreTimeOn 16 February, 1980, “Do That to Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille peaked at #1.

Here we are again, at the top of the charts.  You may be thinking, “Wait, that was quick!”  You’re right, it is quick:  “Do That to Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille only stayed at #1 for a week.  I can only guess that it’s because the title doesn’t pass the giggle test; sure, it’s a kiss she wants… sure… but everyone under the age of 40 is hoping for all sorts of double entendre to slink out above the liquid nothing that passes for a melody on this track.  If you’re one of those puerile-minded (like me), you’ll be sadly disappointed. Ironically, there won’t be one more time for Captain & Tennille, at least not in the top 40. F rom here on out, their singles will wallow in the 50s and below.

There is one thing worth mentioning about this song:  this is the first time an electronic wind instrument hit the charts.  That solo in the middle (thanks, Wikipedia!) is a Lyricon.  I didn’t even know such a thing was possible until 1997 when I saw Trevor Horn playing something similar live during an Art of Noise concert.  Science is wonderful, Captain & Tennille aren’t, and we’ll do it one more time with the week of 23 February soon.

Make no mistake where you are

LogginsThisIsItOn 16 February, 1980, “This Is It” by Kenny Loggins peaked at #11.

This Is It” by Kenny Loggins is the first song I’ve discussed on this blog that I remember from my childhood.  I don’t actually remember it on the radio in 1980; I remember it from 1982 when, I vaguely recall, it was heavily used in television commercials for WXRT, a radio station in Chicago. (Do radio stations advertise on TV anymore?)  WXRT was an adult contemporary station, which is an oldies station for people whose long-term pop culture knowledge goes back no more than 5 years.  These same people are going to absolutely love Wham! and subsequently George Michael, because “This Is It”, with its breathy delivery, vaguely self-affirmative lyrics, and faux-exotic loungy melody, is essentially a template for George Michael’s early career.

Who are these people, these people who gave Kenny Loggins 13 vapid top-40 hits in as many years?  My guess is that these were people whose musical tastes were transitioning from what they listened to in college to what was being played in the registrar’s office at same-said college.  Why the transition?  Their reasons for listening to music had changed.  They’re no longer using music as a mood setter for drinking, flirting, dancing, having sex, or whatever; now music is a mood setter for parenting, typing, shopping, or eating tuna salad.  It’s a method for reducing tension, not increasing it.  There’s always going to be a band of people making this social transition — new parents, people newly in the work force — but I think in times of high cultural volatility, it’s easier to recognize those people from their consumption habits than it is at other times.  The early 80s were one of these dramatic shifts, as we saw last week with Blondie’s “The Hardest Part“, and the result is increasing specialization of radios stations, giving rise to stations like WXRT.  Contrast to today, where most radio stations playing contemporary music are playing very similar playlists — this is a period of low  cultural volatility.  I hesitate to speculate who is the Kenny Loggins equivalent of this particular cycle and just relish the thought that this too shall pass.

 

Overview of 16 February 1980

Only ten songs peaked on the Hot 100 in the week of 16 February 1980 and quite a few of them are notable, so this overview will be fairly short.

We both know something is coming

Dana Valery I Dont' Want to Be Lonely.pngFirst off, at #87 we have  “I Don’t Want to Be Lonely” by the lovely Italian Dana Valery, which is a very good song for people learning how to speak English.  Valery sings about a relationship on the rocks very simply and clearly, the sentences are very straightforward and literal, using only the commonest of idioms.  As a result, it is incredibly unmemorable, with no standout lines or anyplace in particular in the song where the music does anything surprising or notable… even the guitar solo is anodyne.  I’d be amazed if anyone remembers this song at all.

Journey to the stars! Rock n’ roll guitars!

april-wine-i-like-to-rock-capitol.jpgThen we have “I Like to Rock” by April Wine at #86.  April Wine were a much bigger deal in Canada than they were in the US, but they had a bit of a heyday south of the border for a year and a half around 1981.  It’s not entirely clear exactly what prompted them to write “I Like to Rock”.  The lyrics are a bunch of non-sequiturs, particularly the part about space travel, and the music is not particularly special classic rock jammin’.  C’mon Canada, you can do better than this.

 

Even though it’s not a big hit for them, “The Hardest Part” by Blondie (#84) is too interesting to tackle in just a few sentences. It gets its own page.

Spread it with some jelly

twennynine-featuring-lenny-white-peanut-butter-elektra.jpgPeanut Butter” by Twennynine featuring Lenny White (#83) is not in any way what I was expecting.  I was expecting a disco cover of “I like Peanut Butter” by The New Beats, which is surprisingly not the most insipid song ever written. Instead, this is a funk anthem of sorts about eating peanut butter sandwiches.  Oh, with the occasional Woody Woodpecker laugh.  It’s a weird concoction clearly made with a healthy sense of nonsense.  Or is it really a Taoist philosophical parable — if all you want in life is a peanut butter sandwich, how can you ever be unhappy?  You know, ’cause peanut butter ain’t nothin’ but a sammich.

Swift time

MikePineraGoodnight.pngMike Pinera had a career playing guitar with hard rockers like Iron Butterfly and Alice Cooper, which makes “Goodnight My Love” (#70) weirdly incongruous, because it sounds like the kind of thing Kenny Rogers should be singing. That’s not exactly a bad thing, and I think Pinera actually does a better job than the standard lifeless crooner in singing about how torn he is between wanting to stay with his love and needing to leave because the wee hours are turning into the waking hours.  he sounds tender and torn, and that’s an achievement in easy listening.  Nonetheless, the song isn’t particularly memorable, which makes his lack of chart success unsurprising.

It’s a heartbreakin’, earthshakin’ devil’s child

dann-rogers-looks-like-love-again-international-artists.jpgI can’t say the same about Dann Rogers’s delivery in “Looks Like Love Again” (#41), in which he sings about the repeated travails love puts you through in a tone more suited to selling dish soap. It’s a shame, because lyrics like “love’s a little slice of heaven and a little hell” deserve a more heart-felt vocal, and the title needs to be sung in a world-weary pain that doesn’t come across in perky easy-listening country well.  This one could serve to be covered by someone willing to take more risks.

 

There are four more songs that peaked this week, but they’re all notable, so I’ll write about them individually. And because they’re all clumped in the high numbers I can keep them secret for a bit.  So, those are the lesser songs of the week of 16 February 1980.  Next up will be Blondie, and then four mystery songs, at least one of which is actually good.