Is this really your real phone number?

SwitchWe’ve finally made it out of January of 1980, folks!

On 2 February, 1980, “I Call Your Name” by Switch peaked at #83.

In 1963, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons released “Walk Like a Man“, which, in the grand scheme of things is a pretty good song.  It’s message is undermined a bit by the fact that Frankie Valli, while singing about how he’ll walk like a man, is failing to sing like a man, what with his amazing piercing falsetto.  He’s a good singer, don’t get me wrong, and the falsetto works for songs like “Ragdoll” and “Dawn”; it’s just that for “Walk Like a Man” there’s an inherent — and I assume unintended — irony that I can’t imagine people didn’t pick up on.

So, now we have Switch.  These guys are a one-hit wonder, hitting #38 in 1978 with “There’ll Never Be”, and they kept trying until 1984 to score another hit, but never managed.  “I Call Your Name” was the last time they even hit the lower reaches of the Hot 100, peaking at #83.  And it’s got that same inadvertent irony as “Walk Like a Man”.  The song starts with an earnest voiceover, starting with “I used to think about immature things”, said by a guy who sounds like he’s in sixth grade.  Listening to him muse about how he’s gotten past worrying about whether his girl loves him, it’s hard not to snicker when he says, as if it’s a revelation, “I’m a man now!”

Just like if a country has to tell you in its name that it’s a democracy it probably isn’t, if you have to state you’re a man in a song, there’s probably a good argument that you aren’t.

Part of the problem is also that Switch was coming to prominence in the waning days of disco.  There’s really nothing too wrong with the lyrics to this song — some of them are actually pretty good — and I bet if the Jackson Five had performed this in 1974, it would have been a big hit.  But for a struggling soul band to try to claw its way up to the top on saccharine-cute disco in 1979 was a tall order.  And, sure, for every pretty good lyric (“Although I love the sunshine, I’ll still accept the rain”) there’s a turn of phrase that makes you wonder if the writers actually speak English in their normal lives.  “Doggone”?  Who says “doggone” in any seriousness?  Maybe “I Call Your Name” is deliberately ironic, and so successful that it’s indistinguishable from a clumsily penned sincere song…. I suppose it’s possible, but I doubt it.  I mean… who conducts an experiment in irony for over 7 minutes of valuable radio air time?

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.


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.

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.

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.


All of us under its spell

KermitRainbowConnectionOn 5 January 1980, “The Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog was at #95, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #25 in 1979. 

You don’t have to be a good singer to be a successful musical performer.  In my last entry, I looked at Kenny Rogers, who is definitely a talented singer, but who put in a particularly boring and not entertaining performance singing “You Decorated My Life”. On the opposite end of the scale is Jim Henson, as Kermit the Frog, who is not a particularly good singer, but makes “The Rainbow Connection” a charming, endearing song that a whole generation of Gen X-ers remembers fondly. The secret to being a successful entertainer, regardless of genre, is to capture an emotion and deliver it to the audience.  Kenny Rogers didn’t convince me he was in love when he sang to us about how his plain paper heart was colored anew, but when Kermit the Frog sings about how he believes in hope and magic, I believe him.

From the first tentative, gentle banjo twangs that open The Muppet Movie, we can feel that Kermit is full of hope but intensely vulnerable.  His voice is equally tentative, almost halting, as he sings to us about the uncertain nature of our dreams.  Rainbows are illusions and wishes made on morning stars are only a folk tale, after all, and even a dreamer like Kermit recognizes the futility in thinking there’s more than that.   But before he gets to the chorus, we can tell from his voice, the wistfulness and the gentle awe at the world, that Kermit believes in rainbows and wishes anyway, and he makes us want to believe with him.

In the context of The Muppet Movie, “The Rainbow Connection” sets up the entire plot; the song makes an unlikely story believable — a frog and a pig and a bear and a whatever-Gonzo-is are going to travel across the country to make a movie in Hollywood despite being patently untalented in any endeavor but hoping — and it makes me (and you, I hope) want them to succeed.  In the context of the Muppets as a cast of characters, moments like “The Rainbow Connection” make puppets made of felt and foamcore and metal rods seem human, more human in some ways than real flesh-and-blood pop stars sweating under spotlights in satin sequin-studded suits.  And warmed by those sentiments, I feel happy for the Muppets the way I feel happy for my friends when they succeed in their own adventures, more happy that Kermit the Frog could reach #25 on the singles chart than I could possibly feel for any other artist reaching #1.