Bullet-proof vest, shatterproof glass

220px-Blondie_-_The_Hardest_PartOn 16 February, 1980, “The Hardest Part” by Blondie peaked at #84.

I wanted something different, and this — “The Hardest Part” by Blondie — this is different.  It has a power pop feel, but doesn’t have the power pop chords to really land it in that category; it isn’t ragged enough to be straight-up punk; it isn’t repetitive or layered enough to be new wave (though that’s what everyone said it is, mainly because it and songs like it were so different from everything else and the concept of new wave was no new and amorphous that anything uncategorizable in the late 70s got labelled new wave), it’s really its own thing.  And, as if to assert just how different it is, it’s unashamedly about something that practically never hits the top 40:  robbing an armored truck.   Yup, there it is, 25 tons of hardened steel, just waiting for Debbie Harry and the crew to force it to a stop and apply that nitro and acetylene to cut into the chassis and make off with enough money to take them to Brazil.  The hardest part?  It’s not even the armored guard, really, it’s that driver… How do you get him to stop?  Just turbo past and force him off, I suppose (the song isn’t clear).

I mean, this is an exciting story!  It could easily be the focal point of a movie, a movie I’d want to watch.  The music highlights the adrenaline rush of the scene, starting with a jaunty bubbly intro, and then settling into a relentless pulsing drive as our heroes grit their teeth and whiten their knuckles gripping the door handles and their guns, preparing to burst forth and execute their nearly-perfected plan.  Take me along, even if it means I only get to watch as a perplexed but impressed bystander!

The thing I like most about this song is how unapologetic Debbie Harry is in singing this.  There’s no appeal to try to justify why she’s turned to a life of crime.  She’s just a hardened criminal out to make a living, mentally prepped by Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange to take the world as she finds it and treat it as she wants.  It’s perhaps our first real taste of a Gen-X cynicism that will play an increasingly large role in the culture of the 80s.  As a Gen-Xer myself, I’m welcoming it with open arms and open eyes.

Your love won’t pay my bills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing in the strange light

DollarShootingStar.pngOn 19 January, 1980, “Shooting Starby Dollar peaked at #74.

Every genre, no matter how much I like or dislike them, will have its high points and its low points.  I’ve already celebrated some Southern rock and a rap song, two genres I generally don’t like.  Now it’s time to speak ill of some new wave; namely “Shooting Star” by a really wimpy British band called Dollar.

Dollar had a handful of hits in Britain, starting with “Shooting Star” in 1978.  For some reason, it took over a year for “Shooting Star” to show up on the charts Stateside.  Meanwhile, Dollar had three more hit singles in the UK, and then had another two albums that sound even new wavier than this song does.  But with a year-long gap between releases on the two sides of the Atlantic, and a lackluster #74 peak for this, the American market picked up on livelier and better new wave before Dollar had another chance.

“Shooting Star” isn’t awful; it’s just unremarkable.  It’s about, well… friendly dancing aliens on a comet or something.  The music is suitably space agey, but understated enough to be unmemorable.  The singing is mediocre — not that poor singing completely dooms a song, but it needs to be accompanied by something truly memorable.  So this is a scant serving of meh, filling the space between disco and easy listening songs.  Not much to see here.

We can’t rewind; we’ve gone too far

BugglesOn 12 January 1980, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles was at #83. It peaked on December 15, 1979 at #40. 

Imagine yourself as someone like Bobby Darin, who was a regular feature on the popular charts in the 50s and 60s . Imagine standing in an old radio studio, sifting through a bunch of old singles tucked away in their warehouse, perhaps not yours but those of your contemporaries:  Perry Como, Dion, Freddy Canon, Sonny James.  And imagine a young, curly-haired geek of a guy comes up to you and says, “Hey, I remember listening to your stuff when I was a kid!  I love the bassline from that one single, you know the one that soul group turned into a synthesizer riff for their newest single.  I’ve always wondered what you think of how the music industry has changed.  Well, what do you think?”

What would you say?

At least for me, I imagine I’d say something along these lines:  “Everything’s changed; I’m glad I had my time and it was great while it lasted, but time moved on and there’s so much new, who knows if I could have been who I was — who I am  — seeing how it works today.”

That’s the story told by “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.  It’s not triumphant, nor is it sad.  It’s wistful, glad for the time spent lying awake intent at night listening to the disembodies voices singing on the radio, but also accepting that now, thanks to video tape recording, those voices aren’t disembodied any longer, and what a performer looks like, what he or she does in front of a camera is as important as what they croon into the microphone.

This was perhaps not a novel thought; after all ever musician wanted to get a spot on Ed Sullivan or The Tonight Show so that America’s eager public could see as well as hear them.  But if just being on TV were the be-all and end-all of attracting an audience in the video age, then The Buggles wouldn’t be in their video dressed in silver lame, or backed by dancing-singing robotic sci-fi women, and they certainly wouldn’t have a little girl in a red jumper looking forlorn as she climbs up a playground slide.

“Video Killed the Radio Star” is a rare single that captures a pivot point in social history, talks about it intelligently, even poetically, without being either condemnatory or triumphant.  Trevor Horn, that curly-haired geek of a guy, came along and told us that music had just changed, and for better or for worse, there’s no going back.  It didn’t predict MTv really — even though MTv would take another two years to air, music video programs had started popping up in the UK and the US in the late 70s — but it did predict that musicians were going to have to do something more than dress sharply and swivel their pelvises to get popular traction.  Pictures had come to break hearts and it was a phenomenon that couldn’t be undone.

Is someone at MTv headquarters sitting in the abandoned set of Yo MTv Raps lamenting how the internet killed the video star?  MTv did a lot to kill itself off, by abandoning its video show format and investing in comedy shows and reality programs. But, until the rise of internet streaming and the ubiquity of the mp3, someone at MTv or VH1 could have hit rewind; they even tried with  spin-off stations that, sadly, became as inundated with non-video content as their parent stations.  Now, there’s no going back; the mp3 killed the video show, and that’s how it will be, at least until the next ground-breaking technology comes along.

New York, London, Paris, Munich

220px-Pop_MuzikOn 5 January 1980, “Pop Muzik” by M was at #32, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #1 in 1979. 

That change I was talking about last post, that would rescue the world from the mundanity of insincere ballads, the predictability of mass-produced disco, and the feebleness of soft rock?  That change is new wave, and the first instance of real new wave I get to talk about is “Pop Muzik” by M.

As a self-professed new wave boy, I was aware of this song before starting this project, but I didn’t remember it from my childhood.  I know it mainly as fodder from nearly every series of new wave compilation albums, but I had no idea it went all the way to number 1 in late 1979.  How does a light fluffy nonsense song get to number 1?  Well, it helps that this particular light fluffy nonsense song is a bit of a novelty song.  There were lots of serious new wave songs happening at roughly the same time — Ultravox, Roxy Music, The Tubeway Army — but audiences, well, American audiences anyway, weren’t having any of it.  But something that fizzes and pops like the pop muzik it either praises or mocks (“wanna be a gun-slinger, don’t be a rock singer”), well, that something can cut through the sentimental and overproduced schlock on the charts to have a moment in the sun.

From the first chords, Pop Muzik tells you it’s announcing something new: it’s a fanfare of synthesizer; no drums, no brass, no guitar, no aching or tweezing violin, just pure synthetic keyboard telling you that this is something the likes of which you’ve not heard before.  Then the song regales your ears with all sorts of noises, pulsing and popping around each other in complicated patterns.  Seductive, but decidedly not soulful backup singers caress your ears:  they don’t tell you to listen, or berate you for not listening, they just sing, and if you don’t want to hear them, it’s your loss.  If there’s anything this song harkens back to, it’s 50’s do-wop, “shooby-dooby-doo-wop” in this song’s parlance.  If you’ve seen the movie 20 Feet from Stardom, you may remember one backup singer saying of The Monster Mash that it was the song where she was asked to sing like a white girl — the singers in Pop Muzik may as well have been those white girls.

The thing is that, as much as this song calls you to dance, it’s practically impossible to put into a meaningful set with disco songs.  It’s the anti-disco.  It’s jumpy, it’s jerky, and it has no violin!  You have to think to find the beat.  It only makes sense in the context of other jumpy jerky new wave songs.  There were clubs at the time that were devoted solely to new wave music, but it wasn’t filtering into mainstream radio yet.  In a few years, it would be dominating the charts.