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.


Make no mistake where you are

LogginsThisIsItOn 16 February, 1980, “This Is It” by Kenny Loggins peaked at #11.

This Is It” by Kenny Loggins is the first song I’ve discussed on this blog that I remember from my childhood.  I don’t actually remember it on the radio in 1980; I remember it from 1982 when, I vaguely recall, it was heavily used in television commercials for WXRT, a radio station in Chicago. (Do radio stations advertise on TV anymore?)  WXRT was an adult contemporary station, which is an oldies station for people whose long-term pop culture knowledge goes back no more than 5 years.  These same people are going to absolutely love Wham! and subsequently George Michael, because “This Is It”, with its breathy delivery, vaguely self-affirmative lyrics, and faux-exotic loungy melody, is essentially a template for George Michael’s early career.

Who are these people, these people who gave Kenny Loggins 13 vapid top-40 hits in as many years?  My guess is that these were people whose musical tastes were transitioning from what they listened to in college to what was being played in the registrar’s office at same-said college.  Why the transition?  Their reasons for listening to music had changed.  They’re no longer using music as a mood setter for drinking, flirting, dancing, having sex, or whatever; now music is a mood setter for parenting, typing, shopping, or eating tuna salad.  It’s a method for reducing tension, not increasing it.  There’s always going to be a band of people making this social transition — new parents, people newly in the work force — but I think in times of high cultural volatility, it’s easier to recognize those people from their consumption habits than it is at other times.  The early 80s were one of these dramatic shifts, as we saw last week with Blondie’s “The Hardest Part“, and the result is increasing specialization of radios stations, giving rise to stations like WXRT.  Contrast to today, where most radio stations playing contemporary music are playing very similar playlists — this is a period of low  cultural volatility.  I hesitate to speculate who is the Kenny Loggins equivalent of this particular cycle and just relish the thought that this too shall pass.


Sulphur smoke up in the sky

BuffettVolcanoOn 26 January, 1980, “Volcano” by Jimmy Buffett peaked at #66.

I guess if I complain about the Billboard charting songs all sounding the same, I have to be prepared to appreciate something like “Volcano” by Jimmy Buffett.  Don’t misunderstand me:  I find Jimmy Buffett infuriatingly insipid.  But I will grant that his tropical noodling sounds nothing like anything else I’ve talked about so far, and in that regard, it’s refreshing. It’s not a love song, or a lost love song, or even a loneliness song; it’s just a goofy song about an impending volcano eruption and what the islanders threatened by it are considering doing about it.  I can only think of one other song about a dangerous volcano eruption, and it isn’t nearly as happy as this one.

And really, the lyrics to this are kinda fun, even if they are delivered over silly tropical musical nonsense.  There’s a groaner of a pun on “lava”, and there’s all the places that the native doesn’t want to end up, which includes a list of a few places famous for music styles in which that Jimmy Buffett doesn’t write:  New York City, Mexico, and Nashville.  There’s even a call out to each of Three Mile Island and Ayatollah Khomeini, which doesn’t happen often in pop music.  So, okay, Jimmy, I’ll grant it to you, you were doing something special in the late 70s.  I may not have liked it, but at least it was a unique influence on the charts.

My life is so prearranged

LittleRiverBandCoolChangeOn 19 January, 1980, “Cool Change” by the Little River Band peaked at #10.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t take “Cool Change” by the Little River Band seriously.  It’s not that it’s so painfully earnest, though that helps.  No, it’s because of one line… here it is:

Well, I was born in the sign of water
And it’s there that I feel my best
The albatross and the whales they are my brothers

You see, the albatross is his brother.  The albatross, that elegant, graceful, noble bird that carries no other cultural baggage that might, you know, detract from the smooth, sexy, saxy, ambience of this really serious song.  I mean, really, do they not actually have albatrosses in Australia?  It’s not like they needed a three-syllable bird to fit the music here.

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.