Overview of 1 March 1980

The songs that peaked in the week of 1 March are (except for one) a really uninspiring bunch.  Brace yourself…

Apprehending all my criminal need

WaldenShouldaLovedYa.pngYou almost certainly don’t know Narada Michael Walden for “I Shoulda Loved Ya“, which got to #66 this week; you know him for his production work with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Jermaine Stewart, and a host of other R&B musicians, about which we’ll reserve judgment until they peak later in the 80s.  Listening to “I Shoulda Loved Ya”, it sounds like it belongs in the top twenty tracks of 1987, what with its heavy focus on saxophone, and handclaps urging you to do that mid-80s lurchy dance from side to side. The bass solo in the middle sort of pulls you back to the very late 70s, but all in all, this feels like it slipped through a time warp to warn us of what was to come:  “Do something now or EVERYTHING on the radio will sound like this!”  Actually, I’m being too harsh — this is at least perky and refreshing.  I wish the lyrics were a bit more coherent, because the theme of a guy who realizes he’s mistreated someone he’d been seeing is underutilized (maybe because most musicians don’t want to empathize with cads) and far more interesting than all these guys chasing women who aren’t interested in them, or, worse, so achingly in love with the person they’re with.

Just one lover is all you need to know

TurleyRichardYouMightNeed.pngOr there’s achy, preachy earnestness, like “You Might Need Somebody” by Turley Richards (#54), which ambles in like your junior-high art teacher walking up to you to scold you after some other authority figure broke up a fight.  Only Turley is here to berate you for… what, being anti-social?  The message here is to let someone into your heart, as if most people didn’t want that to begin with, and, really, the few people who don’t aren’t going to reconsider their self-isolation just because someone tells them that everyone needs someone around.  Gee thanks, tell us something we didn’t already know, and try to do it with less somnolent instrumentation.

Travelling down that lonesome road

molly-hatchet-flirtin-with-disaster-1979-front-cover-57732.jpgI’ve never knowingly listened to Molly Hatchet before, and I’d always wondered why Ray Stevens referenced them in”Erik the Awful”.  Looking at their mythologically Teutonic alum covers, I simply assumed that they were a good-spirited heavy metal or glam band.  Nope, they’re southern rock, which explains the Ray Stevens reference, if not the album covers. “Flirtin’ with Disaster” (#42) is pretty much what I expect when I think of southern rock…  mildly rebellious nasal vocals, fast-paced twangy guitars, with a solid solo, and… not much else.  This is what the US was listening to instead of Motorhead — who really knew how to rock — and it’s hard to say we were better for it.

Some things are not better left unsaid

NicoletteLetMeGo.pngI understand that there are lyrics to “Let Me Go, Love“, (#35) but when Nicolette Larson and Michael McDonald sing it, it’s hard to tell, because they sort of mumble the words over each other’s very idiosyncratic voice, so the result sounds like two people warbling alphabet soup out loud in a humid room.  Listen to how “look” sounds like “Luke” in “you’ve got that look in your eyes” and you’ll get an idea of what I mean; all the vowels in this song are a little bit nonstandard, and the result is decidedly alien.  Musically, it’s lazy dreamy, and a little bit jazzy, and not entirely uninteresting. I think this would have been better as a Herb Alpert-like instrumental without the vocals.

I’ll take control of your beautiful mind

CommodoresWonderland.pngWonderland” by The Commodores (#25) is one of those soul songs that can’t decide whether it wants to be sexy or creepy.  The singer’s approach — reassuring the woman he’s met that she’s lucky to meet him, that she shouldn’t be afraid, that he’ll take control of her, that any minute that passes may make the whole endeavor of seduction for naught — reeks of desperation, but that promise of being taken off to a magical wonderland of love sounds so enticing doesn’t it?  If it weren’t for the taxi driver, one might expect the song to turn out to be an episode in a serial murderer’s modus operandi.  Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to turn out that way, and the music is suitably trippy and smooth, so I’ll give it a wary pass on the creepiness.

I suppose I should give “September Morn” by Neil Diamond (#17) its own entry, but I won’t like it.

Let me smell the moon in your perfume

ForbertRomeo.pngTake a good look at Steve Forbert.  Does he look familiar?  If he does, you were probably watching MTv in 1983, not because his videos were showing, but because he had a cameo role in one of 1983’s most memorable videos:  he was Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend in “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”.  Before that, here in 1980, he just missed the top ten with his sweetly lilting “Romeo’s Tune” (#11).  It’s really hard to write a song that sounds and feels both intelligent and innocent without sounding fake or cynical; Steve Forbert has done that here and, looking at what was in the top ten when “Romeo Tune” peaked, he deserved to be in the top ten. He avoids simple clichés, but delivers lines that sound like fresh clichés, turns of phrase — those southern kisses and smelling the moon — that feel like he discovered them instead of created them.  The scene with the king and queen feels like a young adult in love discovering his recently outgrown youth, couching it in the imagery of his childhood fairy tales, but recognizing the need to be staid and boring when adulthood calls.  And the jaunty piano tune and the sweet backup singers emphasize the quiet excitement of not-so-young love.  In a way, this song is too good… how can a musician follow up on it?  And Forbert didn’t.  A dispute with his record company didn’t help, but generally it’s hard to shake the overshadowing effect of a single break-out hit; several other musicians I can think of (and will write about) have had similar flame-outs, and it’s a shame when the charts are so consistently filled with otherwise mediocre stuff. .

Is this really your real phone number?

SwitchWe’ve finally made it out of January of 1980, folks!

On 2 February, 1980, “I Call Your Name” by Switch peaked at #83.

In 1963, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons released “Walk Like a Man“, which, in the grand scheme of things is a pretty good song.  It’s message is undermined a bit by the fact that Frankie Valli, while singing about how he’ll walk like a man, is failing to sing like a man, what with his amazing piercing falsetto.  He’s a good singer, don’t get me wrong, and the falsetto works for songs like “Ragdoll” and “Dawn”; it’s just that for “Walk Like a Man” there’s an inherent — and I assume unintended — irony that I can’t imagine people didn’t pick up on.

So, now we have Switch.  These guys are a one-hit wonder, hitting #38 in 1978 with “There’ll Never Be”, and they kept trying until 1984 to score another hit, but never managed.  “I Call Your Name” was the last time they even hit the lower reaches of the Hot 100, peaking at #83.  And it’s got that same inadvertent irony as “Walk Like a Man”.  The song starts with an earnest voiceover, starting with “I used to think about immature things”, said by a guy who sounds like he’s in sixth grade.  Listening to him muse about how he’s gotten past worrying about whether his girl loves him, it’s hard not to snicker when he says, as if it’s a revelation, “I’m a man now!”

Just like if a country has to tell you in its name that it’s a democracy it probably isn’t, if you have to state you’re a man in a song, there’s probably a good argument that you aren’t.

Part of the problem is also that Switch was coming to prominence in the waning days of disco.  There’s really nothing too wrong with the lyrics to this song — some of them are actually pretty good — and I bet if the Jackson Five had performed this in 1974, it would have been a big hit.  But for a struggling soul band to try to claw its way up to the top on saccharine-cute disco in 1979 was a tall order.  And, sure, for every pretty good lyric (“Although I love the sunshine, I’ll still accept the rain”) there’s a turn of phrase that makes you wonder if the writers actually speak English in their normal lives.  “Doggone”?  Who says “doggone” in any seriousness?  Maybe “I Call Your Name” is deliberately ironic, and so successful that it’s indistinguishable from a clumsily penned sincere song…. I suppose it’s possible, but I doubt it.  I mean… who conducts an experiment in irony for over 7 minutes of valuable radio air time?

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.

 

I was there when you were a queen

SoutherYou'reOnlyLonelyOn 5 January 1980, “You’re Only Lonelyby J. D. Souther was at #20, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #7 in 1979. 

I don’t have too much to say about “You’re Only Lonely” by J. D. Souther. It’s nice and harmless.  There aren’t many lyrics — what lyrics there are are a message from a friend to another friend that he’ll be there when she (I assume she) is feeling alone.  It doesn’t do much musically.  It’s slow and sweet, and a little bit forlorn; it’s not complicated or showy, but then it doesn’t need to be.

So instead I’ll mention a phenomenon that occurs in every decade:  the nostalgia cycle.  In a nostalgia cycle, popular culture starts to dip back into the past for inspiration; sometimes the inspiration creates something spectacular and new, sometimes you just get stuff that sounds like it’s thirty years old.  This song is in the latter category, and is part of a retro-50s cycle that took place through much of the early 80s.  Can’t you hear Roy Orbison singing this?  Or The Everly Brothers?  So yeah, “You’re Only Lonely” is a competent if not particularly exciting throwback to the early slow songs of rock and roll.