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.

And I’ll make believe it’s mine

VintonOn 19 January, 1980, “Make Believe It’s Your First Time” by Bobby Vinton peaked at #78.

Does a lyric count as a naughty double entendre if it’s delivered in sappy earnestness?  How about if it’s delivered in a spirit of patriarchal 1950s-style concepts of what love and sex should be like?  These are the questions I ask myself when listening to Bobby Vinton’s saccharinely dreadful “Make Believe It’s Your First Time“.  Maybe it’s my own puerile mind (I don’t think so, but let’s make believe for a second that it might be) but can anyone who sees or hears the title to this song not think  he’s asking her to pretend she’s a virgin?  “The door is closed; it’s you and me…” it’s not like the setup is arguing any differently.  This makes my skin crawl, in a similar manner that the (much better, but nonetheless creepy) “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” does:  there’s the thought of a man making a woman a woman that’s only important, to, well, men who think that women are little more than attachments to men.  So, here’s Bobby Vinton asking this woman to pretend she’s not a woman so that he can make her a woman.  How pathetic — and creepy — is that?

It turns out he’s singing about having fallen in love, or at least the prospect of falling in love, which, I suppose is a bit of a wry joke on the sexual revolution that concluded a decade before this song was recorded (but admittedly only concluded a decade after Vinton’s first single).  But still, would you want to be in a relationship with someone who wanted you to pretend you’d never been in love before?  I thought not.

Meanwhile, The Carpenters went on to cover this.  Why, I can’t for the life of me understand.

I was there when you were a queen

SoutherYou'reOnlyLonelyOn 5 January 1980, “You’re Only Lonelyby J. D. Souther was at #20, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #7 in 1979. 

I don’t have too much to say about “You’re Only Lonely” by J. D. Souther. It’s nice and harmless.  There aren’t many lyrics — what lyrics there are are a message from a friend to another friend that he’ll be there when she (I assume she) is feeling alone.  It doesn’t do much musically.  It’s slow and sweet, and a little bit forlorn; it’s not complicated or showy, but then it doesn’t need to be.

So instead I’ll mention a phenomenon that occurs in every decade:  the nostalgia cycle.  In a nostalgia cycle, popular culture starts to dip back into the past for inspiration; sometimes the inspiration creates something spectacular and new, sometimes you just get stuff that sounds like it’s thirty years old.  This song is in the latter category, and is part of a retro-50s cycle that took place through much of the early 80s.  Can’t you hear Roy Orbison singing this?  Or The Everly Brothers?  So yeah, “You’re Only Lonely” is a competent if not particularly exciting throwback to the early slow songs of rock and roll.