Jesus of Cool: Jon’s Singles File vs. the Faceless Narcissists

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

Among the many types of radio star that video killed were what I like to call the Faceless Narcissists – those acts of the pre-MTV era who felt compelled to name their acts after themselves despite the lack of stardom or even any apparent charisma. The Sanford/Townsend Band; Zager & Evans; Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds; Emerson, Lake and Palmer … you guys know who you are.

Once that little moon-man started flickering across the ether, those snoozer monikers were out the window. And particularly if you were a duo (unless you happened to be Daryl Hall & John Oates), you needed a name like Wham! or Yazoo or Outkast to get on the TV. (Dear readers, please don’t barrage me with boring duo names of the past 25 years; my point is my point, and I’m sticking with it.)

Anyway, the singles I’ve excavated for today’s column date from the peak years of Faceless Narcissism. They are stellar examples of the form not only because they came from duos who had no business naming anything after themselves, but also because they fairly reek of sublimated testosterone. One very nearly punctured the Bee Gees firewall to become a Top 10 hit during the winter of 1978; the other, while not achieving anywhere near that kind of chart success, remains one of the sweetest examples of the kind of turn-of-the-’80s midtempo AC that kept me riveted (and dateless) through much of high school.

Lenny LeBlanc and Pete Carr were high school classmates in Daytona Beach, Fla., whose musical ambitions danced around one another for nearly a decade. LeBlanc led bands in Florida and Cincinnati, while Carr focused on production and eventually settled in Muscle Shoals … zzzzzzzzzzz. For crying out loud, wake me when the backstory’s over! (I told you they had no business naming anything after themselves…) So these two guys finally hooked up and started recording together around 1975, and instead of giving themselves a cool name like one of the bands Carr had produced (Sailcat) or one of LeBlanc’s former groups (Whalefeather), they decided to go by … LeBlanc & Carr. Narcissists!

Whatever. Jerry Wexler, god rest his recently departed soul, liked what he heard from the pair and signed them to the Atlantic subsidiary Big Tree – which made them labelmates with fellow FNs England Dan & John Ford Coley. LeBlanc and Carr each released solo albums to little discernable effect, but when they released the tandem LP Midnight Light in August 1977, they finally began to click with radio programmers.

The album’s first single, “Something About You,” fell just short of the Top 40 (and deservedly so), but then came “Falling.” Is it the sappiest single of the ’70s? If you doubt it, dig the second verse: “I think about summer, my head was swimming/You wrote my name in the sand/We walked together, hoping forever/Please don’t let go of my hand.” It gets even drippier from there – the boys can’t even complete the third verse in the same meter as the first two, dissolving into a mournful “Whoa, I just wanted to say/Won’t you please, please stay.”

More recent vintage Lenny LeBlancWhat saves it, of course, is that melody – alternately laconic and soaring, but always quite lovely. And those vocals! LeBlanc’s work on the verses is just slightly histrionic, in ways both amusing and highly effective, while the harmonies on the choruses are some of the most moving ever to grace the pop charts. If you can ignore those synth parts (I have always imagined a horrible fate for the man who first programmed a keyboard to make that “bwah bwah-bwah-bwah-bwah bwah bwowwww” sound), “Falling” still stands as one of the most exquisite ballads of its era.

LeBlanc & Carr never made it past that first album and a subsequent tour. Carr decided he preferred to stay behind the scenes, while LeBlanc found Jesus in 1980 (where had He been hiding? I don’t know) and went on to become a mildly successful Contemporary Christian artist. “Falling,” meanwhile, returned to fleeting fame in 2006 when videotape surfaced of wackjob John Mark Karr – he of the false confession to the JonBenet Ramsey murder – singing the song at a friend’s wedding.

The creepy John Mark KarrApart from that and some very-occasional satellite-radio play, “Falling” for some reason has not become a staple of Oldies radio, or even a popular recurrent on Adult Contemporary stations. Instead, it rests hazily in the memories of millions – or, at least, it did until you clicked on the MP3. Still, its chart success is more than can be claimed by the second of today’s singles, a track that came and went quickly in the fall of 1980 yet was lodged permanently in my head (as were so many other songs) thanks to a performance on Solid Gold.

Reed Nielsen and Mark Pearson were a couple of dudes from Sacramento who scored a major-label deal for their countrified pop in the wake of the Eagles/Ronstadt/Poco boom of the mid-’70s. Unable to come up with a name more inventive than the Nielsen/Pearson Band (Narcissists!), they put out a self-titled album of almost-straight country in 1978, then re-tooled for their second album by bringing in a who’s-who of West Coast MOR talent to play and produce – Tom Scott, Richard Landis, Peter Wolf (not that one – the other one), and David Foster (paging Mr. Fjelde … paging Mr. Fjelde …).

The result, astonishingly titled Nielsen/Pearson, was released during the summer of 1980 with one of those classic West Coast Pop album covers: a long-haired beauty dives into what could be either a pool of molten lava or a ginormous bowl of tomato bisque, while Our Heroes stand on the rim of the bowl in outfits that anticipate Miami Vice by nearly four years. With all the talent that had stirred the N/P pot during the album’s sessions, it’s hardly surprising that a terrific little cracker (if I may extend the soup metaphor way past its usefulness) soon floated to the top.

“If You Should Sail” has a pinch of that jazzy Scott sheen, a dash of Foster-esque keys, and a slightly funky aftertaste reminiscent of Wolf’s work with Pablo Cruise, Santana and Boz Scaggs. Still, it may have been the lyrical imagery that drew me to the song, with the protagonist encouraging his reluctant Lady Love to search high and low for better alternatives, since he’s “satisfied that all that running’s in vain.”

It was the chorus, in particular, that I found more intriguing than the run-of-the-mill pop hit: “If you should sail upon a ship I’m gonna stow away/And if the ocean’s wide, baby it’ll take a long while/If you should set out on a trip, over your shoulder cast an eye/I’ll be there wearing a smile.”

It was only once I achieved parenthood that I realized this lyrical gambit was also the essential theme of Margaret Wise Brown’s classic children’s book The Runaway Bunny, which predated “If You Should Sail” by about 38 years. Never mind – Nielsen & Pearson exude a terrific offhand confidence, and that trumpet part is still catnip.

Reed Nielsen & Mark PearsonSadly, the single sailed no farther than #38 in November 1980, and N&P’s story lasts barely longer than LeBlanc & Carr’s. They stayed together long enough to release a third album in 1983, to which they surprisingly gave a real title (Blind Luck). Unfortunately, even Steve Lukather’s participation wasn’t enough to put the album over, and after charting in the mid-50s with a one-off cover of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” Nielsen and Pearson parted ways later that same year.

The fact that neither man has been heard from since is just one more bit of evidence explaining why the Faceless Narcissists couldn’t survive the onset of the MTV era. Still, these songs share a treasured niche on my iPod with Sanford/Townsend’s awesome “Smoke from a Distant Fire”; Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds’ “Don’t Pull Your Love” and “Fallin’ in Love”; and, of course, most of the Hall & Oates catalog. Now, if only I could find an MP3 of the Larsen-Feiten Band’s “Who’ll Be the Fool Tonight”…

Until I do, as Mama Bunny said to Little Bunny after he gave up his runaway plans: “Have a carrot.”