The songs that peaked on 15 March 1980 all did so above #45, which you’d think would promise some good music. For a change it actually does! Not that there isn’t awful music too — there always will be — but there’s some music here I’ve been looking forward to talking about. So here we go…
Baby, we were blessed by God
Thankfully “Us and Love (We Go Together)” (#44) was Kenny Nolan’s last appearance on the Hot 100. It’s the panting falsetto gloating easy listening song that did particularly well in the disco age. Kenny’s voice sounds like white polyester: it’s a little bit itchy and doesn’t breathe well, but it sounds good under a lazily-spinning disco ball glinting on mauve stucco walls at some dreadful wedding hall. The guitar player sounds like he may be a little bit tipsy, the violins drip pomade, and the (inevitable) key change somehow fails to be a key-change in that the song doesn’t sound any different after it. And then the lyrics are self-satisfied romantic drivel: all those people seeing them together all congratulating Kenny and his girl on how perfectly they go together like oh so many clichéd harmonizing peas. It’s yet another single to remind us of the cultural wasteland we were leaving behind on the 70s dance floor.
Close enough for rock n’ roll
I’m having trouble getting excited about “Rockin’ Into the Night” by 38 Special (#43), but I’m having trouble articulating why. I’ve listened to it about ten times now, and I even passed it up to work on the other songs for this week before coming back to it, and I still don’t get much out of it one way or the other. It’s not offensive to me, but it doesn’t say anything to me. Even more than The Babys (see below), it just sounds like everything else that was coming out of the arena rock scene in the 1980s, but without being iconic. Maybe it’s the awkward even pacing of the way they belt out the title, maybe it’s the thuddingly boring beat… I dunno, but whatever it is, I’m drawing a blank.
I’m looking for the perfect guy
“Haven’t You Heard” by Patrice Rushen (#42) is a pleasant surprise here: I didn’t know she had anything worth noting beyond “Forget Me Nots”. “Haven’t You Heard” is a suitably funky disco song, regrettably with the same triumphant string section, but it does have a good, not-flashy, electric piano section in the middle, and Patrice’s velvety vocals that likewise don’t demand attention but reward you when you pay attention. The song also addresses the phenomenon of personal ads; “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” did that from a cynically humorous point of view, whereas here, there’s confidence. While it’s not a spectacular song, it’s positive and adds a twist to the standard content of pop lyrics, and for that it’s welcome.
“Baby Talks Dirty” by The Knack (#38) is going to get its own entry
If she’s bad, he can’t see it
The purpose behind the movie The Rose was to help us all imagine what life was like with Janis Joplin, even if the movie wasn’t technically about Janis Joplin. Bette Midler’s cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Bette Midler (#35) certainly gives us an idea of what Janis Joplin would have sounded like if she were performing one of the most iconic songs from the ’60s. And for that we should be thankful, because even if it’s not a ground-breaking version — it doesn’t do anything Joe Cocker didn’t do — it does give us Janis back for five minutes. I’ve long thought that Bette Midler is actually a better actress than a singer — she performs best, singing or speaking, when she’s not being herself — and this channeling of the soul of Janis Joplin is the thesis statement.
But you did, but you did, but you did
Weird as it may be, I think “I Thank You” by ZZ Top (#34) is in some ways about the perfect failed relationship. In the first verse, the guy is singing about how grateful he is for his girl. He recognizes that he’s just one guy in an ocean of guys, and he’s lucky, thankful, to be with his girl. The second verse is about how sexy their relationship is, and again, he’s thankful. The third verse is about how life with her was about constantly doing exciting new things, just to be with her, and he’s thankful. And in the end, sure she’s gone and it’s a crying shame, but the guys’ still thankful for the time they had together and for the enriching experience. He’ll hurt but he’ll still move on a better man — you can tell that from the boogie. Maybe he didn’t thank her enough while they were together, and maybe he didn’t realize he should have been thankful until she was gone, or maybe they just outgrew each other, but at least he’s not angry and bitter, and that makes things right in the world. Not only is it a great song, it’s also a cover of a top-ten charting soul song by Sam & Dave. The ZZ Top version is murky and earthy, sounding nothing like the perky original, which his how cover songs should be. Both of these songs can stand on their own, with the new version acting as both an homage and a reinvention.
“Back in My Feet Again” by The Babys (#33) is sort of what 1980 sounds like in my head: nondescript arena rock that’s trying to be triumphant but feels older than its vintage date. It’s got that Journey feel without quite being as clever, and it’s trying to be innovative like The Cars, but not quite pulling it off. It’s the sort of platitude-filled love song that got stuck between two fresher singles at the roller rink or at sporting events and then disappeared by August without anyone wondering what happened to it.
They don’t know who I am
I would never have known this if I’d not gone to the song’s Wikipedia page, but it turns out that “99” by Toto (#26) is a love song set in a grim future where people have numbers for names and have no emotions. It’s inspired by the George Lucas film THX-1138, and why not? Well, I can venture a reason… if you’re going to write a song about a grim future, it should sound different in some way. So, say, the music should sound unusual, with odd instrumentation or interesting synthesized noises, or maybe an off-kilter time signature or chord progression. Or maybe the lyrics should indicate in some way that the world the song takes place in is not like our own. The only hint in this song is that the object of the singer’s devotion is a number, which would more likely have led me to believe the singer was stalking Barbara Feldon than trying to find emotions in a sterile future earth. So, the verdict is that this was a really good idea very poorly executed. We’ll have to wait a few years for Styx to do something similar.
And all three of…
“Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar (#23),
“On the Radio” by Donna Summer (#5), and
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen (#1)
…also deserve their own entries. I have a lot of work cut out for me.