23 February 1980 is a short week, with only seven songs hitting their peak:
It ain’t love but it ain’t bad
John 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
You 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
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
Bonnie 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
Leave 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.