Overview of 1 March 1980

The songs that peaked in the week of 1 March are (except for one) a really uninspiring bunch.  Brace yourself…

Apprehending all my criminal need

WaldenShouldaLovedYa.pngYou almost certainly don’t know Narada Michael Walden for “I Shoulda Loved Ya“, which got to #66 this week; you know him for his production work with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Jermaine Stewart, and a host of other R&B musicians, about which we’ll reserve judgment until they peak later in the 80s.  Listening to “I Shoulda Loved Ya”, it sounds like it belongs in the top twenty tracks of 1987, what with its heavy focus on saxophone, and handclaps urging you to do that mid-80s lurchy dance from side to side. The bass solo in the middle sort of pulls you back to the very late 70s, but all in all, this feels like it slipped through a time warp to warn us of what was to come:  “Do something now or EVERYTHING on the radio will sound like this!”  Actually, I’m being too harsh — this is at least perky and refreshing.  I wish the lyrics were a bit more coherent, because the theme of a guy who realizes he’s mistreated someone he’d been seeing is underutilized (maybe because most musicians don’t want to empathize with cads) and far more interesting than all these guys chasing women who aren’t interested in them, or, worse, so achingly in love with the person they’re with.

Just one lover is all you need to know

TurleyRichardYouMightNeed.pngOr there’s achy, preachy earnestness, like “You Might Need Somebody” by Turley Richards (#54), which ambles in like your junior-high art teacher walking up to you to scold you after some other authority figure broke up a fight.  Only Turley is here to berate you for… what, being anti-social?  The message here is to let someone into your heart, as if most people didn’t want that to begin with, and, really, the few people who don’t aren’t going to reconsider their self-isolation just because someone tells them that everyone needs someone around.  Gee thanks, tell us something we didn’t already know, and try to do it with less somnolent instrumentation.

Travelling down that lonesome road

molly-hatchet-flirtin-with-disaster-1979-front-cover-57732.jpgI’ve never knowingly listened to Molly Hatchet before, and I’d always wondered why Ray Stevens referenced them in”Erik the Awful”.  Looking at their mythologically Teutonic alum covers, I simply assumed that they were a good-spirited heavy metal or glam band.  Nope, they’re southern rock, which explains the Ray Stevens reference, if not the album covers. “Flirtin’ with Disaster” (#42) is pretty much what I expect when I think of southern rock…  mildly rebellious nasal vocals, fast-paced twangy guitars, with a solid solo, and… not much else.  This is what the US was listening to instead of Motorhead — who really knew how to rock — and it’s hard to say we were better for it.

Some things are not better left unsaid

NicoletteLetMeGo.pngI understand that there are lyrics to “Let Me Go, Love“, (#35) but when Nicolette Larson and Michael McDonald sing it, it’s hard to tell, because they sort of mumble the words over each other’s very idiosyncratic voice, so the result sounds like two people warbling alphabet soup out loud in a humid room.  Listen to how “look” sounds like “Luke” in “you’ve got that look in your eyes” and you’ll get an idea of what I mean; all the vowels in this song are a little bit nonstandard, and the result is decidedly alien.  Musically, it’s lazy dreamy, and a little bit jazzy, and not entirely uninteresting. I think this would have been better as a Herb Alpert-like instrumental without the vocals.

I’ll take control of your beautiful mind

CommodoresWonderland.pngWonderland” by The Commodores (#25) is one of those soul songs that can’t decide whether it wants to be sexy or creepy.  The singer’s approach — reassuring the woman he’s met that she’s lucky to meet him, that she shouldn’t be afraid, that he’ll take control of her, that any minute that passes may make the whole endeavor of seduction for naught — reeks of desperation, but that promise of being taken off to a magical wonderland of love sounds so enticing doesn’t it?  If it weren’t for the taxi driver, one might expect the song to turn out to be an episode in a serial murderer’s modus operandi.  Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to turn out that way, and the music is suitably trippy and smooth, so I’ll give it a wary pass on the creepiness.

I suppose I should give “September Morn” by Neil Diamond (#17) its own entry, but I won’t like it.

Let me smell the moon in your perfume

ForbertRomeo.pngTake a good look at Steve Forbert.  Does he look familiar?  If he does, you were probably watching MTv in 1983, not because his videos were showing, but because he had a cameo role in one of 1983’s most memorable videos:  he was Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend in “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”.  Before that, here in 1980, he just missed the top ten with his sweetly lilting “Romeo’s Tune” (#11).  It’s really hard to write a song that sounds and feels both intelligent and innocent without sounding fake or cynical; Steve Forbert has done that here and, looking at what was in the top ten when “Romeo Tune” peaked, he deserved to be in the top ten. He avoids simple clichés, but delivers lines that sound like fresh clichés, turns of phrase — those southern kisses and smelling the moon — that feel like he discovered them instead of created them.  The scene with the king and queen feels like a young adult in love discovering his recently outgrown youth, couching it in the imagery of his childhood fairy tales, but recognizing the need to be staid and boring when adulthood calls.  And the jaunty piano tune and the sweet backup singers emphasize the quiet excitement of not-so-young love.  In a way, this song is too good… how can a musician follow up on it?  And Forbert didn’t.  A dispute with his record company didn’t help, but generally it’s hard to shake the overshadowing effect of a single break-out hit; several other musicians I can think of (and will write about) have had similar flame-outs, and it’s a shame when the charts are so consistently filled with otherwise mediocre stuff. .

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Glad you’re goin’ my way

SmokeyRobinsonCruisin.pngOn 23 February, 1980, “Cruisin‘” by Smokey Robinson peaked at #4.

There’s a lot of lame music out there, and I’ve ben really obnoxious about it here.  I’ve railed against clumsy word choice, musical tone that doesn’t match the words, and overly-polished vocals, and I’m unapologetic about it.  But sometimes all those things don’t matter and you get a song that shouldn’t work but does.  That’s the case with “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson.

Smokey Robinson just has one of those perfect voices; I’m sure he could sing “Anarchy in the UK” and send chills up your spine with its smoothness.  But in his element, he’s impeccable, putting the soul into soul.  Here on “Cruisin'” he’s covering similar ground as “I Second That Emotion”.  Actually, “Cruisin'” could almost be a sequel to “I Second That Emotion.”  In the earlier song, he sings about how he wants to love, not lust, how he wants a girl to be with him now and forever.  It’s sensual and sexy, but sincere and wholesome all at the same time.  Here, on “Cruisin'” it’s as if he’s got that girl, and they are together, and he’s singing about how wonderful it is that he has the now and the future; he’s in lust and in love, and it’s good for everyone involved.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, and sure, the lyrics aren’t anything too special, but the whole package is special.

2 February 1980 Overview

 

OK, so, after quite a lot of thought and a comment by a reader, I’ve decided that the original plan was a bit too ambitious.  So I’m reformatting.  Instead of doing an entire page on each song that hit the Hot 100 in the 80s — an endeavor that could last more than four times as long as the 80s themselves — I’m going to do an overview of each week with a paragraph on each of the lesser songs, and then do a page on each of the more interesting songs.  I’m finding it’s rare that I have more than two paragraphs to say about many of these songs anyway, and I want to get to the more interesting stuff as quickly as possible. Still, I’m going to try to stick to the original format as much as possible, albeit in a condensed form.  The same links to videos, the same headers featuring lyrics from the songs when possible, and the same level of snarkiness.  The only downside is that these overview pages are going to be a bear to construct.  Here’s the first one.

Thirteen songs peaked on 2 February 1980.  The following I’ve already talked about:

So here’s what the rest of the week looked like:

They’re a dozen for a dime

RobertJohnLonelyEyes.pngPeaking at #41, just outside the hit zone, is “Lonely Eyes” by Robert John, who clearly has a thing for eyes, because his previous hit was “Sad Eyes” which made it to #1 in 1979.  “Lonely Eyes” is superficially triumphal, but it’s about a woman who hangs out at bars or discos and slinks from one one-night-stand to another.  The delivery, with its gentle lope and weepy violins, takes up a fitting tone, both danceable and world-weary.  This is the kind of music sung by a singer and played by musicians who have seen too many nights, just like that emotionally isolated woman, driven by habit or need, underappreciated for their talents.  The irony that this song didn’t quite score a hit only underscores the sweet sadness of the song.  This is a pleasant surprise for me.

It was one of those nights

ELOLastTrainThen we have a compelling guitar riff backed by a suitably funky pace, and I think that we may have something special… until I realize it’s the perfectly nonsense “Last Train to London” by The Electric Light Orchestra (#39).  It baffles me how anyone took the grating falsetto vocals (“I really want tonight to last forever!”) that epitomized disco seriously, particularly when they’re delivering totally uninspired lyrics (“I really want to be with you!”).  There are the requisite violin bursts and then what would be an utterly boring keyboard solo if it weren’t for the fact that it’s some sort of broken-glass orchestra noise they’re using, presaging how dance is going to merge with new wave soon.  There’s a last train to London, I’m not sure if he gets on it or stays with the girl he’s singing to, but I am sure I don’t much care.

I’m caring, sharing everything I’ve got

SantanaYouKNowThatILoveYouI somehow missed that Santana put out albums in the 80s, but given how uninspiring “You Know That I Love You” (#35) is, perhaps that’s not surprising.  There’s nothing here to suggest that this is the same musician who made “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman” the epitome of Latin rock.  How did Santana get so… uncool?  This is a lame, uninspired song that isn’t even worthy of being a fifth single off of a Cheap Trick album.  This was the only single off of Santana’s Marathon album, and that’s probably a good thing.

Please can I see you every day

VoicesCheapTrickSpeaking of Cheap Trick, here they are with “Voices” (#32), which is about as close to a stalker song as you can get without actually being a stalker song. I don’t normally like Cheap Trick because they feel sort of superficial and smarmy, making themselves out to be tougher than they are, but really just sounding like a light-weight Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.  On this song it works, though, because the desperation of the protagonist goes well with that mock-tough, mock-sweet tone.  This guy is at one and the same time begging his girl to love him and trying to convince her by stating as fact that she does indeed love him.  Those voices in her ear should be telling her to back away slowly, but until Bon Jovi comes along, these guys and Journey are about the best you were going to get in the arena rock category, so I guess you have to make the most of it.

I like what you like

OJaysForeverMineWe’re not going to hear much from The O’Jays in the 1980s.  Their hey-day was the 60s and 70s, and there’s not going to be much room for the molasses-rich soul vocals they were soaking their records in. This is a shame because even when they’re singing scary lyrics like “don’t you ever think about leaving”, like they do here on “Forever Mine” (#28), they sound so dignified and smooth, like scarlet velvet.  And the passion with which he sings about how she exceeds all the loves he’s had in the past makes you feel it, you know, that she is something special. I don’t know that the singer and the object of his affection are made for each other the way he says, but the song makes you want to think that they are.

I kept the feelings to myself

FoghatThirdTime.pngAnother classic band we’re not going to see much of again is Foghat, whose clumsily titled “Third Time Lucky (First Time I Was a Fool)” hit #23.  I kind of wish they’d go into the details of the three loves this guy is singing about — once bitten, twice shy, third time lucky.  In the lyrics, the first time sounds like he’s a jerk, writing to her that he’d never forget her and now he can’t remember his name.  Maybe being a fool is treating her so badly.  But that doesn’t sound like he’s been bitten, but rather that he was doing the biting.  Whatever, I’m sure she’s fine.  Then the second time he’s too shy to act on his feelings, which is indeed a disaster… unless you’re a stalker like the guy in the Cheap Trick song, in which case maybe it’s better you keep your distance.  I mean, really, this week guys in the charts really come off as jerks:  stalkers, creepy seducers, and this guy who thinks that somehow he’s the victim of two love affairs, one of which didn’t happen and the other of which was his own insensitive fault.

And then there’s “I Want to Be Your Lover” by Prince at #11, which I’ll cover on its own.  And that’s an overview of 2 February 1980.

 

 

 

 

With a dozen roses

SendOneYourLoveOn 12 January 1980, “Send One Your Love” by Stevie Wonder peaked at #4. 

For most of these first two weeks of 1980, I’ve been very down on the listening habits of the American public.  I stand by much of what I’ve said:  people generally don’t like to be challenged too much when they’re relaxing, and let’s face it, for most people the radio is background music.  Occasionally, though, a song will manage to be challenging, accessible, and a hit.  Usually a song like that has to come out of an established act, who was successful with more standard fare and then has the reputation to get away with something more difficult.  Here is a perfect example:  “Send One Your Love” by Stevie Wonder.

Now, you’re listening to this song and probably wondering what I’m talking about. It has the standard verse-chorus structure, a pretty straightforward time signature, pretty standard instrumentation, and, heck, it’s a love song.  But listen to it closer.  Listen, just before he sing’s “Send her your love” each time:  the instruments lift to an unresolved chord progression, creating an actual moment of audial tension.  And the whole song does this really; the chord progression slips and slides, but always ends on a chord that leaves the phrase unresolved, leading you on through the song by the hand.  You can’t listen to this song and feel like you got your musical closure out of it unless you listen all the way to the end with that gentle faded out harmonica and tinkle-bell.  It’s musically challenging in ways that no other song I’ve covered so far has been.

And the lyrics aren’t your standard love song.  Stevie isn’t talking about how much he loves someone; he’s talking about how much he wishes other people could express their feelings to each other.  It’s not exactly untrodden territory in a pop song, but it’s rare enough a message that I’m always surprised to hear it explored.

So, briefly, Stevie is managing to be subtle and intelligent, and he’s managing to sneak his expert musicianship into a smooth jazz package that lets the complexities sneak past people’s pop cultural danger sensors.  I wish more music sounded like this — easy to listen to, but very interesting when you actually pay close attention.