It shakes all over like a jellyfish

queen_crazy_little_thing_called_loveOn 15 March 1980, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen peaked at #1

As a seven year-old kid, I knew the lyrics to a lot of songs, but none very few, if any were from 1980.  Some of them were from the latter half of 1982, and quite a few of them were new in 1983, but the bulk of them were from the 1960s.  This is because I was mostly listening to the music my parents listened to, and most often that was either the 60s top 40 station or the classic rock station.  My parents were listening to it because it was the music that was on the radio while they were in junior high and high school and I was listening to it because it was what they were listening to.  To this day, when I hear a song that sounds like old-school do-wop or something out of The Beatles’ or Rolling Stones’ back catalog, a little part of my brain trips, and my ears perk up, either out of recognition or out of familiarity.

Today, as an adult, I listen mostly to 80s music, the music I listened to in junior high and (to a lesser extent, because it was then the early 90s and music started getting bad again) high school.  If I had kids, they’d be learning the lyrics to songs by The Fixx, Missing Persons, and Cyndi Lauper, just as I learned to sing along to The Supremes, The Beach Boys, and Strawberry Alarm Clock.  And every so often, new music starts to sound like my nostalgia playlist, and I end up buying an album made by people who are young enough to be the kids of people who aren’t all that much older than me, like La Roux, The Ting Tings, and MGMT.

But I wasn’t driving record sales in the 80s really.  My peak purchasing years for pop culture consumption were really the 90s.  The people driving record sales in 1980 were a little more than a decade older than me, and the music their parents were listening to while they were forming their first permanent memories was early do-wop, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, the people who founded rock and roll.  As a result, a lot of the people making music in 1980 had a lot of respect for those rock and roll pioneers, and their prime consumers — people young enough to listen to new music regularly, but old enough to have ready money to spend on albums featuring that new music — were primed to react positively to songs that could have sat side by side with Buddy Holly and Little Richard.

And that’s where “A Crazy Little Thing Called Love“, Queen’s first #1 hit in the US, comes in.   It sounds like the 50s, and was written (by Freddie Mercury) as an homage to Elvis Presley.  He said in interviews that it took him five or ten minutes to write, in part because it’s meant to be simple, and in part because he composed it on a guitar, an instrument he didn’t really know how to play at the time.  Listening to it, love it or leave it, you can hear immediately why it was such a big hit, particularly in America — everyone who had ever heard rock and roll music could agree:  this is what rock and roll is meant to sound like.  And the way Queen plays it, it seems so easy and effortless, not like the leather jacket that Freddie Mercury wears in the video, but like the white t-shirt underneath it:  comfortably snug, easy to move around in, and reassuringly familiar.  In every decade there are nostalgia acts, and it’s this simple familiarity that they trade on; “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is a particularly well-executed example, and we’ll be hearing from the likes of The Stray Cats, Billy Joel, and Phil Seymour in a bit.  Later on, we’ll be picking up on some retro-60s sounds from people like The Bangles.  When I was in college, there was a weirdly inexplicable retro-40s swing craze (I’m not sure exactly where that came from).  It’s a fairly predictable pattern, and like anything else, it produces both quality and dross, but either way, it will be successful.

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Accept me for what I am

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

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

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

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

Ho-tel, mo-tel, Holiday Inn

Rapper's DelightOn 12 January 1980, “Rapper’s Delightby The Sugar Hill Gang peaked #36.

So, a while back, I said that the music industry was ready for a change, and I said that change was coming in the shape of new wave.  That was true, but only half-true.  In the short term — through to 1985, it was correct.  In the long term, there was to be another solution, and that’s rap, which has more or less taken over the pop charts now, and subsequently become part of the problem.  But back in 1980, rap was only a phenomenon at certain inner city block parties.

Until  “Rapper’s Delight” hit the charts.  It is the rap song:  not the first one (that’s arguably “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil-Scott Heron), but the first one to hit the top 40, and the first one to set the standards for what rap should be.

First, a procedural note:  I think the version that I linked to above is the one that made the charts, butt there’s a fourteen minute version with a lot more lyrics (including a brilliant call-out to Kaopectate), and that’s the one I’ll talk about here.

So, the first thing you might notice about “Rapper’s Delight” is that the actual music is derivative, in this case the bassline and violin accents are lifted right out of “Good Times” by Chic.  This is an industry standard:  rap isn’t about the music itself (though that helps), it’s about being able to do something interesting vocally over preexisting music.  This isn’t just a factor in rap music (“Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen uses the same bassline) but it is something that rap songs (and derivative genres like techno and hip hop) do a lot more often than songs in other styles. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and that is especially true in rap:  if you write a catchy backbeat that makes people dance, it’s only a matter of time before some rap guy gets his ears and hands on it and raps something completely different over it.

As lyrics go, “Rapper’s Delight” does everything a rap song is supposed to do.  It’s undeniable that these guys are really good rappers:  they syncopate their syllables and hit every beat for over fourteen minutes.  And they rap about rap stuff.  The first verse is rap guys rapping about who they are, and how good they are at rapping, marking their turf, so to speak.  And there’s a verse bragging about all the swag the rapper has:  cars, a pool, more clothes than Muhammad Ali (say what?!), and a color TV to watch the Knicks play (this is back when a color TV was still a big deal; my family didn’t have one until 1982).  But more importantly, there are verses in this song that are funny.  Somewhere along the line, people forgot that rap music could be, maybe should be, funny.  There’s a verse here where the rapper is macking on Lois Lane, bragging that he’s a better lover than Superman (can you possibly hear about the rapper comparing his “super-sperm” to the little worm of a panty-hose clad fairy without laughing?)  And then there’s a verse about being subjected to the awful food at a friends house, food so bad the rapper has to go pick up that bottle of Keopectate.  Boasting with clever turns of phrase and coaxing your fans to laugh while they dance, this is what early rap was all about; it’s what inspired Will Smith and The Beastie Boys,  and it’s where rap would be until the much more serious, and much edgier, gangsta rap started to burble up from the projects in the later 80s.

How influential is “Rapper’s Delight”?  Pretty soon, you’ll hear Kurtis Blow borrowing some of these lyrics in a song.  Ditto with Blondie, who will take rap to number one.  More unusually, twenty years later, Las Ketchup will have a hit with “Asereje“, which is about a guy trying to request “Rapper’s Delight” at a club, but, because he can’t remember the title, he sings a mangled Spanish garble of the lyrics.  A song that’s inspiring hits two decades on in a completely different language?  That’s an influential classic.

 

Listen here, how we sing it in your ear

Bar Keys Boogie BodyOn 12 January 1980, “Move Your Boogie Body” by The Bar-Kays was at #57. It peaked in 1979 at #53. 

OK, let’s talk about “Move Your Boogie Body” and let’s talk about funk, because “Move Your Boogie Body” is as funk as funk gets.   Which is to say I hate it.

Which is not to say I hate funk in general; there’s a lot of fun and interesting funk.  Like “Brick House” by The Commodores; who doesn’t like “Brick House”?  And there’s a lot about funk in general I like — interesting instrumentation, complicated rhythms, a general sinuosity, and lots of bass guitar.  The problem with lots of funk groups, though, is that they want to sound like they’re the center of everything that’s funk, and as a result, there are a lot of bands that sound alike and, strangely, unintelligible. And that’s “Move Your Boogie Body” in a nutshell.  There’s too much going on to get a sense for how this song is its own creature; it just sounds like all sorts of other funk songs.  This is the disco of funk.  And I can’t understand a word anyone is saying.  Unintelligibility is not a problem in of itself when the voice is being used more as an instrument than in communicating information; Sigur Ros (definitely not funk) is brilliant at singing meaningless lyrics in ways that are musically intriguing.  But the vocals in a lot of funk songs are jarring in a way that, while not exactly cacophonous, isn’t exactly musical either.  The Bar-Keys are the kind of funk I can do without, but which was very very popular in the late 70s.  It’ll take us until about 1985 before there’s going to be funk I like, I fear.

 

Caught between a lover or two

LovePainsYvonneEllimanSingleCoverOn 5 January 1980, “Love Pains” by Yvonne Elliman was at #88, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #34 in 1979. 

Love Pains” is our first disco song, so this is as good a place to talk about disco as any.

I hate disco.  I mean, there are individual disco songs I don’t mind, but as a genre, disco is really close to unbearable for me.  It’s totally predictable, with its obvious 4/4, 120 beat per minute time signature, with its gleeful major chord optimism (even when the song is about horrible things or people), with its violin string section there to play accent bursts, with its kick-drum and sync-sync-syncopated rhythm.  It’s music that tells you to stop thinking; unlike easy listening, it demands your attention and won’t let you think about anything else, but really doesn’t offer you much of interest to think about.  It’s the five year-old constantly tugging at your pant leg, asking why why why when you’re trying to cook and/or clean and/or talk to the bank on the phone.

“Oh, it’s just dance music,” you say.  “Dance music doesn’t always have to be deep and meaningful.”  And I agree.  There’s a lot of moronic dance music out there that I like, but it’s generally dance music that at least sounds different from other dance music.  To me, disco all sounds the same, and given how easy it is to assemble superdancemixes of disco tracks that all run into each other, I can only conclude that disco is designed that way.  You’re supposed to dance to it and not notice that the song has changed; you just keep dancing blithely to the 4/4 kick drum.

So now let’s talk briefly about “Love Pains”.  It’s got the kick drum, the violins, the obvious dramatic key change for the last chorus, all the hallmarks of disco.  And the lyrics!  She’s singing about how she’s going to leave her lover during the night to run off with some other guy she hardly knows, but she hesitates.  She’s torn.  Torn between a lover or two.   A lover or two?  How does that make any sense?  You can’t be caught between one lover, so it has to be two… unless one of them isn’t a lover, but that doesn’t fix the grammar problem, and my brain can’t tolerate it.  I’d have kicked her out months ago.