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.

 

Overview of 12 April 1980

Still trying to get back into a good pace on these posts.  This week is a mixed bag…

Come the night, we’re in overdrive

rcr_scandalThe lower reaches of the Hot 100 are designed for songs like “Scandal” by RCR (#94).  It’s a competent classic rock song with a swaggery guitar and lyrics that approach interesting but fall mostly on the cliché side of things.  It’d fit just fine with rock songs by bigger stars of the time — think Pat Benatar, Tom Petty, The Pretenders, and the like.  The problem is that as much as it makes my shoulders bob, it doesn’t do enough to be memorable past whatever song comes next.  Very little in the song — voice, guitar playing, lyrics, even attitude — is particularly unique, though, so it’s no surprise to me that “Scandal” didn’t rise any higher.

No more jaguars

nazareth-holidayI’ve never heard a Nazareth song before, and I can’t say I ever felt I had missed something.  Listening to “Holiday” (#87), I’m thinking I might want to rethink that.  It’s not that I like it — I think it’s clumsy, with the chorus taking too much of a flippant departure from the grittier body of the song — but I like what they’re trying to do in the chorus.  It’s hard to pull off a line like “Please, no more husbands” and still come off sounding macho; Nazareth succeeds in this pretty handily.  There’s an interesting attempt here at capturing that moment when an adolescent realizes his home environment isn’t healthy, whether it’s because Mom’s a drunk, or engaged in serial disastrous relationships, or pushing her son too hard to be something he isn’t. Bravo for taking classic rock to a place it rarely goes, even if I don’t actually like the result.

We’ll both be walking away

bar-kays-today-is-the-dayNo joke, the first time I went to listen to “Today Is the Day” by The Bar-Kays (#60), I didn’t last more than 20 seconds.  With that first “Today is the day!”, my brain said, “I can’t take this, it’s going to be awful.”  But I persevered, in the name of science, or completeness, or foolhardiness, or something, anyway… My brain was right; it’s awful, from the so-high-pitched-it’s-nearly-nonexistent “oooh!” to the plodding self-important beat, to the entirely uninspired brass section, it’s shamelessly uninteresting.  Don’t forget the needless guitar, and the key change at 2:13.  Everything about this song is screaming, “Get me into the top ten!” and the evil part of me is glad it never got there.

What’s her name?  I can’t tell ya!

zevon-certain-girlI’m a big fan of early Warren Zevon, and it saddens me that this song is the only time I’m going to get to talk about him.  He’s sort of Elton John’s evil twin brother, writing piano ballads about alcoholism and urban blight, upbeat dance songs about psychos and werewolves, and stomping rockers that sound like snippets from out of a Charles Bukowski novel. Even more unfortunate is that “A Certain Girl” (#57) is a cover of an single by Ernie K-Doe that was subsequently done by The Yardbirds.  Not unfortunate because of quality; not at all:  Warren Zevon takes the song and makes it his own, putting a sinister thread of angst under the whole track that culminates in manic, frantic near-insanity at the end.  The narrators of Warren Zevon songs are rarely people you’d want to date, even when the song is borrowed.  No, it’s unfortunate because I can’t talk about the genius of Warren Zevon’s own lyrics… there’s no disturbing character-building here, no clever wordplay (Warren Zevon manages to get words like cummerbund and brucellosis into his songs, without raising eyebrows).  Nope, I have to be content with a relatively tame Zevon track; if you haven’t listened to his beeter-known singles, you owe it to yourself to look them up.

Trying so hard not to see

John_Denver_Autograph_album_cover.jpgI have vivid memories of John Denver’s episode of The Muppet Show. I remember waiting eagerly for Kermit the Frog to announce the guest star, and when he announced John Denver, my whole body would be overcome with emotion… “What?  Again?!  Where’s Shirley Bassey?  Or Mark Hammill?”  I’ve seen that sappy-sick version of that garden song so many times that I fear I may have an unfair prejudice against John Denver.  But than I listen to “Autograph” (#52), and all that sappy-sick disappointment rushes back.  But this time there’s a flute.

Heaven in the morning

roberta-flack-with-donny-hathaway-you-are-my-heaven-atlantic-2.jpgListen to the voices of Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack on “You Are My Heaven” (#47), how effortlessly they make their voices sound like silk, sliding through the air into your ears, strong but caressing.  Really, they’re like human brass instruments, putting just enough happiness into the verses, just enough surprised contentment into their sighs that you could believe that they were indeed a couple rejoicing not just in the greatness of their love, but in the every-day comfort of being together.  This song really embodies the wonder of an everyday love, one that has settled into a routine, but still brings both lovers happiness:  heaven in the morning every morning, who wouldn’t’ rejoice in that?

Your river is fading

loggins-keep-the-fireSome musicians seem to exist mainly to fill out the gaps in the top 100.  Kenny Loggins is one of these artists, with a surprising number of otherwise forgettable singles that capped out somewhere between 80 and 30, he’s sort of a superpowered studio musician, there to keep the studio running when better things aren’t on order.  “Keep the Fire” (#36) is one of these ephemeral songs, with vaguely new-age lyrics (and album cover), suitable for listening between traffic reports, and featuring what is, I think, an early use of autotuning.  I’ve never heard it before now, I’ve no intention to hear it again, and if I were to hear it again, I’m not convinced I’d remember it at all.

Gotta run for shelter

too_hot_by_kool_and_the_gang_and_lisa_stansfieldToo Hot” (#5) is the second entry for Kool & The Gang, and… it’s kind of a let down after “Ladies’ Night”.  It’s a fine, if not particularly insightful, look at a relationship that’s gone sour after years of getting stale.  It’s sort of the opposite of “You Are My Heaven” above.  I’m not sure why musicians take lyrics about fading love and set it to a song appropriate for a couple’s slow dance.  Listening to this, I imagine men in white suits and women in gold sequin gowns dancing slow and close, looking deep into each others’ eyes, but the song is about people who don’t intend to do that sort of thing any more.  Has anyone ever had this as their wedding dance song?  It has the feel of a wedding song, but would be so inappropriate in that role

And… we’ll cover the #1 song in a separate entry…

 

 

 

 

Ho-tel, mo-tel, Holiday Inn

Rapper's DelightOn 12 January 1980, “Rapper’s Delightby The Sugar Hill Gang peaked #36.

So, a while back, I said that the music industry was ready for a change, and I said that change was coming in the shape of new wave.  That was true, but only half-true.  In the short term — through to 1985, it was correct.  In the long term, there was to be another solution, and that’s rap, which has more or less taken over the pop charts now, and subsequently become part of the problem.  But back in 1980, rap was only a phenomenon at certain inner city block parties.

Until  “Rapper’s Delight” hit the charts.  It is the rap song:  not the first one (that’s arguably “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil-Scott Heron), but the first one to hit the top 40, and the first one to set the standards for what rap should be.

First, a procedural note:  I think the version that I linked to above is the one that made the charts, butt there’s a fourteen minute version with a lot more lyrics (including a brilliant call-out to Kaopectate), and that’s the one I’ll talk about here.

So, the first thing you might notice about “Rapper’s Delight” is that the actual music is derivative, in this case the bassline and violin accents are lifted right out of “Good Times” by Chic.  This is an industry standard:  rap isn’t about the music itself (though that helps), it’s about being able to do something interesting vocally over preexisting music.  This isn’t just a factor in rap music (“Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen uses the same bassline) but it is something that rap songs (and derivative genres like techno and hip hop) do a lot more often than songs in other styles. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and that is especially true in rap:  if you write a catchy backbeat that makes people dance, it’s only a matter of time before some rap guy gets his ears and hands on it and raps something completely different over it.

As lyrics go, “Rapper’s Delight” does everything a rap song is supposed to do.  It’s undeniable that these guys are really good rappers:  they syncopate their syllables and hit every beat for over fourteen minutes.  And they rap about rap stuff.  The first verse is rap guys rapping about who they are, and how good they are at rapping, marking their turf, so to speak.  And there’s a verse bragging about all the swag the rapper has:  cars, a pool, more clothes than Muhammad Ali (say what?!), and a color TV to watch the Knicks play (this is back when a color TV was still a big deal; my family didn’t have one until 1982).  But more importantly, there are verses in this song that are funny.  Somewhere along the line, people forgot that rap music could be, maybe should be, funny.  There’s a verse here where the rapper is macking on Lois Lane, bragging that he’s a better lover than Superman (can you possibly hear about the rapper comparing his “super-sperm” to the little worm of a panty-hose clad fairy without laughing?)  And then there’s a verse about being subjected to the awful food at a friends house, food so bad the rapper has to go pick up that bottle of Keopectate.  Boasting with clever turns of phrase and coaxing your fans to laugh while they dance, this is what early rap was all about; it’s what inspired Will Smith and The Beastie Boys,  and it’s where rap would be until the much more serious, and much edgier, gangsta rap started to burble up from the projects in the later 80s.

How influential is “Rapper’s Delight”?  Pretty soon, you’ll hear Kurtis Blow borrowing some of these lyrics in a song.  Ditto with Blondie, who will take rap to number one.  More unusually, twenty years later, Las Ketchup will have a hit with “Asereje“, which is about a guy trying to request “Rapper’s Delight” at a club, but, because he can’t remember the title, he sings a mangled Spanish garble of the lyrics.  A song that’s inspiring hits two decades on in a completely different language?  That’s an influential classic.