Into the Ear of Madness: Week 11 — Nothin’ You Can Do About It

Written by Into the Ear of Madness, Music

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Over the next year Terje Fjelde has agreed to listen to nothing but David Foster on his iPod. He’s loaded the thing with over 1,200 songs produced, arranged, composed, and/or played by the man. A deal with the devil? He keeps wondering.

The Manhattan Transfer, “Nothin’ You Can Do About It” (from Extensions, 1979) (download)

The Manhattan Transfer was never my cup of tea. I’ve usually found their attempts to mix vocalese with a contemporary sound to be a bit contrived. They’re incredibly talented singers, no doubt about it, and I’ve tried to like them for years. I’m sympathetic to their projects. I like what they’re trying to do. But whenever I sit down to listen to one of their albums, I just get this uneasy feeling — I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly, but it’s something — and I eventually turn it off.

As a result, I own several of their albums, but I don’t think I’ve listened all the way through a single one of them. There is, however, one significant exception to my reservations, and that is “Nothin’ You Can Do About It,” from their 1979 release Extensions. That is one brilliant pop tune.

I never lose control. I’m the most mild-mannered, controlled person you can imagine, a model of polite restraint. But whenever that piano intro starts rolling, I’m right up there on the table going completely crazy, wildly (over)playing air piano and singing along in falsetto. I’m horrible at remembering lyrics; I don’t even remember the lyrics to songs I’ve written myself. But this one I know by heart. It’s probably the only song I can sing all the way through.

Again, David Foster is deeply involved. He cowrote the song with Steve Kipner and Jay Graydon. Graydon produced the album. Foster plays the dominant piano riff with those brilliant off-the-beat dissonances.

There are so many great twists and turns on this track. It’s energetic and upbeat. There are jazz references, complex chord structures, modulations, syncopations — all the things I cherish in a really good pop song. There’s also a wonderful synth solo by Greg Mathieson. Love every note of it. And the Manhattan Transfer’s vocal harmonies are, for once, perfect in a contemporary pop setting. Oh, how the “ba-ba-do-aahs” prior to the chorus make my heart skip a beat, if not two!

David Hungate, at that point a member of Toto, provides bass guitar, and Ralph Humphrey’s on drums; they’re not the stars of the track, but they provide perfect support. Jay Graydon is credited on guitar (but where is that guitar? I challenge you to locate it) and additional synths. Ian Underwood’s also credited on synths — a lot of synths, but it’s all in good taste. Also, I’d swear that I’m hearing Jerry Hey’s flugelhorn in there, but there’s no sign of him in the liner notes. Are my ears fooled by a synth? A synth from 1979? I somehow find that hard to believe! Any insiders with additional information here?

Foster and Graydon rerecorded “Nothin’ You Can Do About It” for their Airplay project in 1980, with Tommy Funderburk on vocals. It’s good.

For reference, I’m also in possession of a horrible version of the song recorded for a Norwegian television show in 1982 with a Polish-Norwegian female singer by the name of Alex. Foster was a special guest star on the show and provides the piano part. This version, to me, shows just how brilliant the Manhattan Transfer arrangement is. “Nothin’ You Can Do About It” is a song that requires a lot of precision and finesse, skills neither Alex nor the studio band possess. These were supposed to be Norway’s top session musicians at the time, but their performances are incredibly heavy-handed and bland. Alex’s voice wanders up and down in constant search of the melody line, and she’s frequently out of tune. Oddly enough, she won a Norwegian Grammy for Best New Artist in 1977.

Foster’s piano sounds as if it was recorded through a poor telephone line from L.A. (Maybe it was.) Surely this is not one of his fondest memories. He probably still hates Norway. He’s not to blame, though — he’s as flawless as ever on the piano.

But as performed by the Manhattan Transfer, “Nothin’ You Can Do About It” is pop virtuosity at its finest. Wonderful stuff. Extensions peaked at #55 on the Billboard top LPs chart, and it seems that “Nothin’ You Can Do About It” was never released as a single. In that case, what a complete shame!

This is a rewrite of a post I did on my first blog a couple years ago. It fits the chronology perfectly, and I’m on vacation and feeling kind of lazy, so I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the easy way out this week. Thanks.