Overview of 19 April 1980

Only eight songs peaked this week; some of them may actually be good…

She doesn’t love you anymore

ForbertGoodbyeIf you liked “Romeo’s Tune” by Steve Forbert, you’ll like “Say Goodbye to Little Jo“, too.  Sure, it stalled at #85, but as we’ve seen, it isn’t always the best songs that climb the charts.  This song sounds like a bitter sweet break-up song, but if you listen, not even too closely, it’s a bitter telling off of a guy who’s lost a girl who was too good for him.  She’s perhaps that stereotypical woman who was trying to fix the problem boy, but she’s finally had one too many nights of not talking and being manipulated into staying and she’s gone.  It’s a rare empowerment song that isn’t self-congratulatory; no, it’s a song about learning from mistakes, praising the women who do and castigating the men who don’t.

My heart keeps on feeling

Beach Boys Goin OnI will admit I wasn’t expecting to stumble on The Beach Boys in 1980, and, doing research I’m even more amazed to learn that these are all the original Beach Boys.  I’ll also admit I’ve never much been a fan of their music, but I do respect them.  Don’t get me wrong — I respect them — they’ve clearly got talent, pulling off harmonies that other groups wouldn’t try to crest even with floatation devices.  It’s just that their lyrics are so predominantly vapid; I wish they’d used their talent to perform better music.  “Goin’ On” (#83) is a perfect example of this.  The vocal talent is crystal clear, layered, and deep, but the lyrics are moronic:  “We couldn’t quite make it/But I still can’t shake it” are the lazy, cheap teen-aged rhymes Frank Zappa was mocking the Beach Boys for back in the 60s, and here they are as certified adults singing the same kind of nonsense.  I wish I could say that The Beach Boys get better, but I know that 1987 is going to bring us “Kokomo”, so, no it doesn’t get better.

Don’t look now, but here come the ’80s

Styx Borrowed TimeBorrowed Time” (#64) was Styx’s opening song for their 1979-80 tour, and I’m sure at the time it sounded really rockin’ and edgy. I don’t think it’s aged well.  The tempo is in an awkward middle-ground between driving and rambling, which, when combined with the grouped triplets they use to emphasize the starts to the phrases in the chorus, sounds shambling and staggering.  They also haven’t quite figured out how to meld the gentle sci-fi synthesizer with their hard-rockin’ guitar, and the coupling feels like a pale imitation of what Queen and Journey were doing around the same time.  Still it’s inoffensive and it gets to where it wants to go, which is the second rockin’ song in the set, so let’s cut it some slack.

Lighting my dreams like a morning star

Cavaliere Only a Lonely Heart.jpgYou may not know Felix Cavaliere by name, but you probably know some of his work.  He was a member of The Starlighters, who gave us “The Peppermint Twist” ( which as a Twist song has stood the test of time much better than anything Chubby Checker put to vinyl)  and he was a Young Rascal, whom we have to thank for the inanity that is “Good Lovin’“. But he had a mellow solo run too, and “Only a Lonely Heart Sees” (#36) is an artifact of that solo career. Here he’s jumping on the easy-listening bandwagon, giving it something of a breathy Bee-Gees twist, making music for people who are to laid-back, or perhaps a year or two too old, for real disco.  He’s going to show us the way to paradise on the heels of the hands that tap out the Caribbean rhythms on those bongos that pepper the percussion track.  No need to get out of your lawn chair or maroon shag easy chair — in paradise your pulse doesn’t have to rise above resting rate.

I appreciate you’re busy

Carrie-by-Cliff-RichardInexplicably, here’s Cliff Richard again, this time with “Carrie“.  I understand that he was a big deal in Britain — like Johnny Hallyday was for France, he was, no, is, Britain’s Elvis — but I didn’t understand that he had any impact overseas.  And yet here he is at #34, the lower reaches of the top 40, but top 40 nonetheless.  Perhaps more inexplicably, this song is actually good.  The creeping guitar manages to capture the feel of anxious shyness and curiosity, precisely the tone that a song told by a guy looking for a vanished girl should hit, full of trepidation and hope at the same time.  And the lyrics are interesting:  “the young wear their freedom like cheap perfume”, for instance, captures both the slapdash excitement of immature maturity and the cynicism of an older person’s perspective on that ill-considered freedom. All of that and this song rocks, with an infectious melody that makes you want to follow Carrie to wherever she went, maybe a grimy billiards room or some back-alley biker bar.  Wherever she is and whatever reason, you can feel why Cliff wants to find her.

You deny me of my needs

utopia-set-me-free-bearsville-5Utopia was essentially a vehicle for Todd Rundgren to produce music under a name other than Todd Rudgren.  “Set Me Free” (#27) is a surprisingly bouncy light-progressive single.  I’m not sure what, exactly, I was expecting.  Well, I can tell you that at first I was expecting Utopia to be a disco-funk outfit, and then, when I saw Todd Rundgren on the track, I was expecting something, well, more rock-oriented.  But “Set Me Free” is pretty much straight-forward pop.  Well, at least the arrangement and instrumentation is.  The melody wanders all over the place, so that it doesn’t really have that sing-along quality that characterizes pop singles.  I mean, imagine trying to sing this karaoke, even without a few beers in you, let alone drunk like most karaoke would be done.  I’m not sure it’s possible.  Anyway, it’s an interesting curio, but ‘m not entirely sure I understand how it got to #27.

Somebody’s got to lose

Whispers Beat Goes OnThe Whispers are the funk-disco outfit I expected Utopia to be. “And the Beat Goes On” was their biggest hit, landing at #19 and more or less at the midpoint of their singles catalogue.  As disco songs go, it’s pretty innocuous.  It makes my feet want to get up and dance without relying on too many disco clichés.  And there’s a message to the song that is unusual for a disco song:  instead of the beat going on being about endless dancing, its about picking oneself up after a setback (in love, of course, it’s always about love) and getting on with your life.  And dancing to it.  The instrumentation of this song is actually very promising; it sounds a lot more like the kind of funk that was coming out in 1985 than the bulk of soul tracks that populated jukeboxes in 1979.

Leave that nine-to-five up on the shelf

Michael Off the WallSpeaking of music that sounds like 1979, this week’s list ends with “Off the Wall” by Michael Jackson (#10).  Maybe that’s unfair.  Michael Jackson’s voice is its own thing, it’s timeless, and regardless of the backing music, it transcends its release year. And musically, the composition is more adventurous than most disco, with an almost prog-like melody and ambitious bridges.  But the instrumentation is very disco; it’s very very close to a Stevie Wonder-style modern jazz song, but there’s the breathy layered background music and the kick drum and that weird Evermean cackling at the beginning.  Regardless, the song just wants to get you up off your feet and drop your inhibitions, and, if you like disco, this will achieve that goal while still challenging your brain with complexity you won’t get from KC & The Sunshine Band.

 

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I guess we used to be the lucky ones

StyxWhyMeOn 9 February, 1980, “Why Me” by Styx peaked at #26.

They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery; if so, Queen should be very flattered by Styx’s “Why Me“.  It’s not a 100% stylistic… homage, let us say — the saxophone that chimes in at 1:45 on this video is decidedly not-Queen, for instance — but from the triumphal bombastic beginning and the occasional growling delivery of Dennis DeYoung to the weird interpolation of “Rubelator” in a pause in the action there’s a lot of Freddie Mercury lingering in the wings.

But if you’re going to mack someone else’s style, you should do it well, and Styx does a good job at putting out a second-rate Queen single here.  They take on an abstract concept — the vagaries of life shifting one’s fortunes from day to day — and hit mostly the right tones with it.  And at the end of the song, you feel both the frustrations and exhilarations of life, not just in the lyrics, but also in the music.  So good on Styx.

Where this song fails to ascend to the heights that Queen is able to reach is in its inability to bridge from the abstract to the concrete without seeming trivial.  To make an admittedly unfair comparison, “Bohemian Rhapsody” — perhaps one of the best rock songs ever, if not the actual best — discusses all of these things, but also ties the discussion to a gripping concrete story of murder and desperation.  Sure, Styx wasn’t trying to rival “Bohemian Rhapsody” in “Why Me”, but the attempts to connect with the concrete in this song — those bills to pay, and the awkwardly forced “that’s what I want to know” as the song fades — clank like tin among the soaring tones of the abstract parts of the song.  Styx would have been better to keep their heads in the clouds on this one, which is admittedly hard for a band that was billing itself as America’s voice for the blue collar rust belt.  But that’s the difference between a good band and a great band:  a good band makes great songs but can’t transcend its niche.

I’ll need your love to see me through

StyxBabe.pngOn 5 January 1980, “Babeby Styx was at #6, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #1 in 1979. 

I’m torn on Styx.  On the one hand, superficially they’re the kind of soft rock band I generally dislike, wall watered down and weak, a perfect candidate for the love theme or end credit to a heartfelt light drama of some sort.  But there are Styx songs I like.  As for “Babe“… I’m torn.  It starts out like something from the Barry Manilow catalogue, with a dribbly keyboard intro and oh-so-sincere vocals.  And the lyrics really aren’t anything special; it’s the standard going-away-I’ll-miss-you song.  There’s a little bit of magic in “Babe” though, in the little keyboard riff that comes with the end of the chorus (first at 1:51) that’s got a good combination of anticipation and yearning in how it doesn’t quite resolve without the singer’s voice.  So, my verdict on “Babe” is that it’s tolerable; I can understand how it got to #1 (Styx’s only #1), but it’s not showing up on any playlist I put together.