We don’t need no education

Pink Floyd Another BrickOn 12 April 1980, “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd peaked at #1

There are few counter-culture anthems from the 80s as powerful or as instantly recognizable as Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2“.  As a song, it has a visceral quality that’s undeniable:  it’s got a stark, danceable beat, an urgent but subdued delivery, and a message that goes far beyond the standard fodder for pop music.  But its message leaves me torn, all the more so because of the bleak political turn the world has taken as my generation has come to be the main economic and political actor on the world stage.

Actually, there are two messages in the song that bother me.  First is the bitter misogyny.  A lot of pop songs written by harbor casual misogyny, from “Shake, Rattle, and Roll“, which implies that all a woman is good for is cooking food for her hungry man, to pretty much anything by Rick James, who wants his women to be available to him for whatever purpose at whatever time he chooses.  But, “Another Brick in the Wall” — and the film The Wall — is full of outright hostile misogyny.  The villains are male authority figures, in this case school teachers, who delight in beating and demeaning their charges because, being routinely “thrashed within an inch of their lives” by their “fat and psychopathic wives,” they have to exert their masculinity on innocent children.  I didn’t go to a British boarding school — and there are a lot of cultural artifacts out there excoriating the British educational system of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (like the brilliantly odd film If… ) — but it’s hard for me to believe that the main source of the problem was sadistic housewives.

The second problem I have with the messaging in the song is its anti-intellectual bent.  I get that schools are difficult places with sometimes arbitrary rules governing discipline, and that that can feel stifling to a kid.  But the answer to that problem is not to reject education like the chorus of the song suggests.  Being another brick in the wall isn’t about being educated, it’s about letting an unimaginative education system make you the victim of thought control.  Thought control only works on the stupid and uneducated — Jabba the Hutt told us that in The Return of the Jedi — and if you can’t survive school because some henpecked geometry professor is sarcastic at you and won’t let you have your pudding if you didn’t eat your meat, well, you’re not going to do particularly well when evil-minded politicians offer you simple answers to complicated problems and then take your services and freedoms away.  You’ve got to be smart enough to see through them, and that means sitting through science, math, and civics classes.

I don’t know if Pink Floyd thought their message was about more than one kid in a story they wrote or if they thought it was a universal truism that women and schools are evil.  I’d like to think not, but the guys in Pink Floyd are pretty weird anti-establishment people, so who knows?  What I do know is that too many of my classmates in high school who loved this song either dropped out or ended up in dead-end jobs, and probably somehow think they beat the system, not realizing that they’re helping to perpetuate it.  Which is a sad end to think about when you’re out under the blacklights dancing to “We don’t need no education.”

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Overview of 29 March 1980

29 March is a mixed bag both musically and in terms of quality, but there really aren’t any stand-out songs.

You say it, and I’ll pay it

jimmy_buffett-survive_sI’m getting a very strong Randy Newman vibe off of “Survive” by Jimmy Buffett (#77).  It’s in the way Jimmy takes concrete, mundane details that we all can recognize from our everyday lives and turns them into an image that speaks depths about deep emotions, here love and loneliness.  Who hasn’t on occasion opened up a telephone bill and gotten a green, sour feeling in their stomach?  But here, Jimmy turns it into a symbol of how much he misses whoever he’s singing to:  the daily (and costly) reminders of being away make his longing for her all the more poignant.  The later verses make it clear that he’s missing his woman because he’s off on a tour — he doesn’t unpack for that one day’s visit because he has to go back and play some gig somewhere — and it’s usually a bad sign when a musician starts complaining in his song about how tough life is on the road, but at least in this song, it’s a good thing.  And it’s a reminder that musicians (or any performers) are real people:  no matter how much fun they look like they’re having on stage singing for the thousandth time about margaritas and volcanos, they’ve got real lives that they’d much rather be leading.

You’re a fool-hearted man

dottie-west-a-lesson-in-leavin-united-artistsHas any hip-hop artist sampled the backbeat from “A Lesson in Leavin’” by Dottie West (#73)?  Because if they haven’t they should:  it’s got a funky little beat and, more importantly, that intro is about as clean a clip as you can possibly get — no need to stitch it together from other parts of the song, there it is in all it’s glory.  Even the first vocal lines, the part over the backbeat with no other music, made me think that maybe this wasn’t the country song I was expecting it to be, that maybe Dottie West was some blue-eyed soul singer.  But no, it’s country, but as country goes, this is pretty good.  It’s not twangy or nasally.  Really the only things that make this fit for the country stations is Dottie’s slight a Tennessee accent and the somewhat shrill female backing vocals.  Well, and the lyrical content:  the restrained vengeful reprimand from a wronged woman, and a few Southern turns of phrase.  In a way, I’m surprised this wasn’t a bigger cross-chart hit, because it seems like it could have been an easy fit on the top 40 and easy listening stations as well as the country chart it topped.

I kept my promise

festival-argentinaAs you can probably imagine, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” by Festival (#72) is a disco version of the song from the hit Broadway musical, Evita, and as you can probably imagine, it’s really horrible.  I’m not going to go into my distaste of Evita, what with it being a celebration of the puppet-wife of a quasi-fascist dictator; I’ll just say that I generally don’t much like musicals to begin with because of how most of them, Evita included, artificially force a story and music together into some sort of lumbering Frankenstein creature. But then to discofy it, makes an even clunkier Frankenstein beast.  Keep your distance.

Clouds burst to give water

stevie-wonder-outside-my-window-tamlaI’m going to sing the praises of Stevie Wonder again, not because I think “Outside My Window” (#52) is a particularly good song, but because it’s an interesting song with a something of an interesting story.  You see, it’s literally a love song to a flower.  Why?  Well, this song, and the entire album it’s from, are the soundtrack to The Secret Life of Plants, a documentary furthering the theory that plants are at least semi-sentient.  First off, you have to be really brave to write and perform an entire soundtrack in support of such a thesis; I’ve already said on this blog that Stevie Wonder is one of the few people so far in 1980 who was taking any musical risks, and here he is doing it again, with a moderate amount of mainstream success.  Not only is the whole project a bit weird, but it’s even weirder — and braver — to have  a blind guy write music to accompany a movie about so visual a topic as plants.  The Wikipedia article for the album talks briefly about how Stevie Wonder went about doing this, having the producer describe what the scenes in the movie look like so he could write fitting accompaniment, and frankly, that takes guts on the part of everyone involved.  Not having seen the film, I can’t say if the result works as a soundtrack, but this single is at least interesting:  a musically odd piece, with reduced chords, jazzy construction, and a weird squishy noise serving as percussion.  Do I want to listen to this a lot?  No.  Was it refreshing to hear a few times?  Absolutely.

Invisible airwaves crackle with life

RUSH_The_Spirit_of_Radio.jpgI have never been much of a fan of Rush, but I respect what they do with music, because, like Stevie Wonder, they try and succeed in doing interesting things with music that few people were trying to do on the top 40 charts. “The Spirit of Radio” (#51) is a perfect example of them doing this.  They have their trademark soaring guitars and complicated rhythms that lift a listener beyond the standard rock n’ roll beat with the predictable verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus structure.  Instead of the music being a vessel for the lyrics, Rush seems to use lyrics as packaging for the interesting things they’ll do with the music, as if they’re bribing us to listen to their musical mastery by giving us words to listen to.  Not that the lyrics are lightweight:  no, Rush has written a song about the power of music to capture people’s imaginations, but also about how easily such a force for liberation can be corrupted by the allure of fame that categorizes, delegitimizes, and sanitizes music.  Rush is railing against the top 40 radio they successfully broke into (well, in Canada and Britain anyway, where this song went to #13 ad #22 respectively), and I’m all for subversiveness like that.  And then toward the end, they throw in some reggae, just to keep us on our toes.

Burned up my childhood days

willie-nelson-my-heroes-have-always-been-cowboys-cbsMy Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” by Willie Nelson (#44) is a straightforward cover of a song by Waylon Jennings from 1976 from the soundtrack to The Electric Horseman, which I’ve never seen, or even heard of.  I was always befuddled that my moth and my two uncles had a fascination with cowboys — and the wild west in general — similar to the sentiments of this song.  Cowboys have never meant anything to me, and I certainly never had the idea that they were a cohort of noble savages who fought for law and justice despite being barely civilized themselves.  But my mother and her brothers would reminisce about Bonanza and Gunsmoke, speaking a language I barely understood, despite it being English.  Of course, their parents’ generation created those shows about their parents’ generation, something along the lines of my generation creating Argo, Apollo 13, and Mad Men.  So, even though my heroes have never been cowboys, this song has its place; it’s just not in my record collection.

Stab you in the back with a switchblade knife

foreigner_-_women_b-w_the_modern_day_1979The don’t make casual misogyny like “Women” by Foreigner (#41) anymore.  The lyrics are just a rundown of all sorts of women in the world:  behind bars, in airplanes, in magazines, limousines, who need a shove, and, as if it were unusual, with their clothes on.  None of these women seem to be particularly nice or even pleasant, and the only thing that makes them interesting is the situation they happen to be in.  I mean, those women behind bars got there somehow, but Foreigner doesn’t seem to care about that beyond the fact that they’re bad girls.  So, what does this song say about women?  That they exist, that they can be dangerous, and that sometimes you need to rough them up.  No thanks.

You know I’m not that strong

j_geils-come_back_single_coverCome Back” by The J. Geils Band (#32) presages a time when the charts would be dominated by songs that occupy the intersection of rock, dance, and new wave, synthesizer-driven songs that nonetheless rock and get people out into the shadow of the disco ball.  If this song had been released in, say, 1982 alongside “Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone”, I think it would have been a huge hit.  Not that #32 is a bad showing or anything, but with more polish and an audience more primed to hear music in this vein, it’d’ve been big.

Give it all you got

Mangione-Give-It_all-You-Got.jpgMy father loved Chuck Mangione.  I never regarded him as anything more than harmless.  Given all the other things we might have been listening to on the way to school, I far preferred Chuck Mangione over some of the other available options.  I don’t explicitly remember “Give It All You Got” (#18), but frankly it sounds like all the other smooth jazz I’ve heard in my life.  At least it actually sounds like jazz, unlike a lot of the other stuff I’ve heard on smooth jazz stations.  (Once I heard “Moments in Love” by the Art of Noise on a smooth jazz station, which pushes the definition of jazz to a ridiculous extent.)  Anyway, I feel the same way about “Give It All You Got” — it’s harmless, and at least it showcases trumpet, which doesn’t happen very often in top 20 singles.

You don’t need that heart of stone

shalamar-second-timeShalamar, at least in “The Second Time Around” (#8) is everything I hate about disco.  Its mix is all front-loaded, which makes it sound like a TV commercial, even the bass guitar sounds like it’s treble, it has silly little sound effects to remind you when to point your gold ring-encrusted finger at the air conditioning vent while you boogie, and the lyrics are, well, boring.  “The second time is so much better, baby; and I’ll make it better than the first time.”  Honey, don’t do it!  He’s going to trample all over you again, just like he is this monotonous disco beat!

Together we can learn to grow

Andygibbdesire.jpgDesire” by Andy Gibb (#4) starts out sounding like something dark and stormy, but it doesn’t last long.  Unfortunately, Andy Gibb has to remind you that he’s a Bee-Gee but blurting out a few breathy gasps right out of “Stayin’ Alive”.  Fortunately, there’s a bit of a reggae shuffle beat underlying “Desire” that may distract you from the fact that the vocals are delivered at such a high falsetto as to be unintelligible.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of those falsetto vocals.  And the lyrics are some sort of mélange of world peace nonsense, juxtaposing opposite states and then suddenly springing on the woman in question that Andy’s totally smitten with her.  Presumably is such a confusing world, the only thing he knows is that he’s infatuated.  The only think I know is I’m waiting for next week.

Did you ever see a man with no heart?

Gamma I'm Alive.pngOn 2 February, 1980, “I’m Alive” by Gamma peaked at #60.

I’d never heard of Gamma before this week, and I expected them to be a rockin’ band that was trying to grab onto the new-wave sound without actually being new wave.  Based on “I’m Alive“, that’s exactly what they are.  As the song itself goes, there’s not much to it.  It’s a pretty straight-forward rock song about a guy who has been liberated spiritually by the girl of his dreams.  What’s “special”, at least by the standards of February of 1980, is the sci-fi sound effects Gamma sprinkles liberally into their track, from the robot-like voice filter responses to the vocal hooks in the chorus to the space-age fade at the end that promises more to come.  Listening now, it sounds like a hodge-podge mess that barely holds together, lacking smooth transitions among verses, chorus, and guitar solo.  But at the time, this must have been something of a mild revelation, inspiring greater things.

She said, “Oh, it’s you…”

PinaColadaEscape (The Pina Colada Song)” was the last #1 hit of 1979; it dropped to #2 and returned to #1 for one more week on 12 January, 1980.

If you know your 70s music really well, you may be aware that Rupert Holmes has a wicked sense of humor.  You see, he was responsible for one of 1971’s weirdest hits, “Timothy“, which is about three guys who get stuck in a mine during a cave in, and two of them eat the third.  “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” isn’t nearly as morbid or controversial, and it’s a lot easier on the ears, but it still has a wry irony to it.

Underneath that vaguely tropical beat and that windswept wistful guitar solo, there’s a story worthy of O. Henry.  “Like a worn out recording of a favorite song,” the singer has found himself living a boring routine day in and day out with his wife.  On a whim, he reads in the personals a slightly snarky ad from a woman who wants a mildly adventurous guy:  not into yoga, has half a brain, likes to make love at midnight in sand dunes, and, of course, a fan of pina coladas.  He responds with an ad on a similar snark level, suggesting they meet up at a bar and plan their escape

Now, if The Kinks had written this song, the mystery woman would be a transvestite.  If Morrissey or Anne Clarke had written it, the mystery woman would never show up.  But Rupert, bless him, has the woman turn up, and, of course, it’s the same world-weary wife the singer is trying to escape from.

I want to point out a really magical moment in this song:  at 2:47, when she sees her husband there in the bar, she says, “Oh, it’s you,” and you can just feel both the disappointment and the humor welling up in her soul.  It’s a line suitable for an episode of Soap that seems like a throwaway, but on which hinges the soul of this song.  It’s such a human response; it shows that Rupert Holmes really is a very good observer of human behavior.

How does the song end?  In much the way that episode of Soap would… the couple probably briefly considers being angry at each other, but then, with a smile, rediscover the exciting sides of each other that they’d clearly forgotten.  I like to think that they do make their escape, together, to Aruba or Abaco or some other Caribbean island to have their pina coladas and sand-dune trysts.  It sure sounds like the man in the equation is getting there emotionally; with what sounds like a wry smile, he starts, “I didn’t know you like pina coladas…”

And to be honest, I didn’t know I liked the Pina Colada song until I really listened to it.  I’d heard it in passing so many times and assumed it was boring drivel, but now that I’ve really paid attention to it, like the two people in the song, I’ve realized there’s a lot more to it than I had given it credit for.  It has a humorous, slightly edgy side to it that hides under a mundane exterior; it tickles my brain, and my funny bone, and my heart all at once.  It’s a keeper.

I don’t wanna tie you down

DamnedIfIDoOn 5 January 1980, “Damned If I Do” by The Alan Parsons Project was at #27, its highest position in the 80s. 

I don’t know of anyone who gets passionate about The Alan Parsons Project.  There are all sorts of progressive rock bands that have very passionate fans.  There are Genesis people and Yes people and King Crimson People; heck, I’m a Frank Zappa person, and if he’s not a prog rock act, that’s only because he’s involved in so many styles of music that he doesn’t fit into one genre, and let me tell you the Frank Zappa people are downright crazy fans.  So, sure, there are quite a few passionate fans of prog rock, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who gets excited about The Alan Parsons Project.

Damned If I Do“, I think, is indicative of why.  Progressive rock is all about doing unusual things with music, at least unusual things by mid-70s standards, and fans of progressive rock want unusual time signatures, interesting instrumentation, acrobatic guitar, and epic set-piece songs.  This song is none of that.  It’s a straightforward song about a dude in a difficult relationship in a 4/4 time signature with tame synthesizers pretending to be brass.  It even has violin, though admittedly not the horrible disco violin I usually complain about.  Sure, it’s darker and more brooding than your standard top 40 song — the twinkling keyboard notes sound like fading lights of hope over the relentless moody pace of the rest of the song — but it sounds exactly like what it is, the sanitized for top-40 version of progressive rock.  Don’t get me wrong, I like this song:  it’s haunting how this singer is pursued by the gloom of the music and the situation he’s found himself in.  But it’s not special in the way progressive rock is supposed to be special.

I don’t want to sound unfair here, because I think The Alan Parsons Project has their place.  They’re an easy on-ramp to building up an appreciation for progressive rock, and they did do a lot of interesting work in building concept albums.  And they do eventually put out an incredible, unforgettable single, which we’ll talk about a bit later.  But most of the material they put on the charts, “Damned If I Do” included, is the kind of stuff normal listeners note as a pleasant curiosity and progressive rock fans grow beyond.