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.”

It shakes all over like a jellyfish

queen_crazy_little_thing_called_loveOn 15 March 1980, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen peaked at #1

As a seven year-old kid, I knew the lyrics to a lot of songs, but none very few, if any were from 1980.  Some of them were from the latter half of 1982, and quite a few of them were new in 1983, but the bulk of them were from the 1960s.  This is because I was mostly listening to the music my parents listened to, and most often that was either the 60s top 40 station or the classic rock station.  My parents were listening to it because it was the music that was on the radio while they were in junior high and high school and I was listening to it because it was what they were listening to.  To this day, when I hear a song that sounds like old-school do-wop or something out of The Beatles’ or Rolling Stones’ back catalog, a little part of my brain trips, and my ears perk up, either out of recognition or out of familiarity.

Today, as an adult, I listen mostly to 80s music, the music I listened to in junior high and (to a lesser extent, because it was then the early 90s and music started getting bad again) high school.  If I had kids, they’d be learning the lyrics to songs by The Fixx, Missing Persons, and Cyndi Lauper, just as I learned to sing along to The Supremes, The Beach Boys, and Strawberry Alarm Clock.  And every so often, new music starts to sound like my nostalgia playlist, and I end up buying an album made by people who are young enough to be the kids of people who aren’t all that much older than me, like La Roux, The Ting Tings, and MGMT.

But I wasn’t driving record sales in the 80s really.  My peak purchasing years for pop culture consumption were really the 90s.  The people driving record sales in 1980 were a little more than a decade older than me, and the music their parents were listening to while they were forming their first permanent memories was early do-wop, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, the people who founded rock and roll.  As a result, a lot of the people making music in 1980 had a lot of respect for those rock and roll pioneers, and their prime consumers — people young enough to listen to new music regularly, but old enough to have ready money to spend on albums featuring that new music — were primed to react positively to songs that could have sat side by side with Buddy Holly and Little Richard.

And that’s where “A Crazy Little Thing Called Love“, Queen’s first #1 hit in the US, comes in.   It sounds like the 50s, and was written (by Freddie Mercury) as an homage to Elvis Presley.  He said in interviews that it took him five or ten minutes to write, in part because it’s meant to be simple, and in part because he composed it on a guitar, an instrument he didn’t really know how to play at the time.  Listening to it, love it or leave it, you can hear immediately why it was such a big hit, particularly in America — everyone who had ever heard rock and roll music could agree:  this is what rock and roll is meant to sound like.  And the way Queen plays it, it seems so easy and effortless, not like the leather jacket that Freddie Mercury wears in the video, but like the white t-shirt underneath it:  comfortably snug, easy to move around in, and reassuringly familiar.  In every decade there are nostalgia acts, and it’s this simple familiarity that they trade on; “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is a particularly well-executed example, and we’ll be hearing from the likes of The Stray Cats, Billy Joel, and Phil Seymour in a bit.  Later on, we’ll be picking up on some retro-60s sounds from people like The Bangles.  When I was in college, there was a weirdly inexplicable retro-40s swing craze (I’m not sure exactly where that came from).  It’s a fairly predictable pattern, and like anything else, it produces both quality and dross, but either way, it will be successful.

Kiss me like you just did

CaptTennilleOneMoreTimeOn 16 February, 1980, “Do That to Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille peaked at #1.

Here we are again, at the top of the charts.  You may be thinking, “Wait, that was quick!”  You’re right, it is quick:  “Do That to Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille only stayed at #1 for a week.  I can only guess that it’s because the title doesn’t pass the giggle test; sure, it’s a kiss she wants… sure… but everyone under the age of 40 is hoping for all sorts of double entendre to slink out above the liquid nothing that passes for a melody on this track.  If you’re one of those puerile-minded (like me), you’ll be sadly disappointed. Ironically, there won’t be one more time for Captain & Tennille, at least not in the top 40. F rom here on out, their singles will wallow in the 50s and below.

There is one thing worth mentioning about this song:  this is the first time an electronic wind instrument hit the charts.  That solo in the middle (thanks, Wikipedia!) is a Lyricon.  I didn’t even know such a thing was possible until 1997 when I saw Trevor Horn playing something similar live during an Art of Noise concert.  Science is wonderful, Captain & Tennille aren’t, and we’ll do it one more time with the week of 23 February soon.

Let that rhythm get into you

JacksonRockWithYou.pngOn 9 February, 1980, “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson peaked at #1.

It’s only in retrospect that we, or at least I, find it strange to think of Michael Jackson as seductive.  For much of my adult life, I knew of Michael Jackson as either weird, because that’s what he looked like on TV, or as 12, because that’s what he sounded like on the radio station my parents listened to.  For a while from, say, 1975 to 1984, he was not exactly a sex symbol, but certainly an attractive guy who could deliver lyrics like those in “Rock With You” without coming across as creepy.  If you buy the argument that most rock songs that aren’t obviously about something else are actually about sex, this song is about lots and lots of sex. The thought of lots and lots of sex with 1990 Michael Jackson is repulsive.  The thought of lots and lots of sex with 1980 Michael Jackson is totally reasonable.

So let’s get past the visuals of Michael Jackson and just listen to his delivery of these lyrics, silky-smooth with just enough occasional friction to create an adventurous frisson that lets you know that a night of rocking with MJ is going to be quite an experience.  The result is what disco was really designed for — to serve as a enabler for dancing and seducing, interesting enough to keep your attention, but not distracting enough to take your mind off of your dancing partner/seductee.  With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that “Rock With You” went to number one, but it also makes sense that it’s not one of Michael Jackson’s best songs — it doesn’t have the theatrical fullness of “Thriller” or the creepy undercurrent of “Billie Jean” or the social consciousness of “Black or White”.  But that’s not its job; it’s a great dance song, that’s all, and it triumphs in that.


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.

In my lifetime I’ve had one dream come true

PleaseDontGoPlease Don’t GoOn 5 January 1980, “Please Don’t Go by K.C. and the Sunshine Band peaked at #1. 

Who knew that K. C. and the Sunshine Band didn’t just spout out fodder for wedding reception dances?  After listening to “Please Don’t Go”, I kind of wish that’s all there was to them.  When K. C. belts out dance albums, he at least sounds authoritative, or energetic, or something that makes all the bachelorettes jump up and stumble to the dance floor.  When he’s singing a lovelorn ballad like this, he sounds ridiculously nasal and impossibly earnest, a bit like a ferret whining to be let out of its cage.  K. C. does the usual rationalizing with the departing woman of his dreams, first telling her not to go, then saying that even is she does leave, he’s lucky to have had her love him, and then resorting to begging her (damn her deaf ears, can’t you hear him?) to not leave.  And musically it’s a lot of dreamy wispy nothing until toward the very end, they turn up the mike on the bass guitar so you can hear it thumping like… what exactly?  Her cold heart as she walks out the door?  We don’t have much time to think about that, because then K. C. does a really pathetic voiceover, and it’s over.  Really we’ve heard this all before, and we’ll hear more or less the same on any given day on the charts, only perhaps not as haplessly as this.  And yet, this hit #1.  What a way to end the first week of 1980.