Like, Omigod! Digging Through the ’80s Pop Culture Box, Part 1
Welcome to OMG!, our brand-new roundtable series, where a gathering of your favorite Popdose writers (and, um, Jack Feerick) come together to spout ill-considered opinions about our pop-music heritage!
When the long-running Digging For Gold wrapped up, bringing us to the end of Time-Life Music’s AM Gold series of compilations, we spent some time casting about for a new group project. There are many excellent music anthology collections we could have chosen, and the Popdose staff argued the merits of them back and forth in lively email exchanges. The AM Gold series had brought us up to 1979, and we knew that we wanted to continue to look at pop history going chronologically forward. And of all the tasteful, thematically-selected, painstakingly-curated collections of 1980s pop available on the market, we selected… none of them; we decided to go with the Rhino Records compilation Like, Omigod! The ’80s Pop Culture Box (Totally), instead.
One of the joys (?) of AM Gold was trying to second-guess the programmers who put the set together. To say that not every track was an all-time winner understates the matter drastically; some of the selection choices are, frankly, baffling. Like, Omigod! has some of that same random, what-the-hell spirit, giving time to songs of wildly varying genre and quality across its seven discs.
Which probably makes it fairly true to the way we actually experienced the music of the Eighties. Those of us of a certain age may wish to remember our musical diets as consisting only of “the good stuff” of the era, be it postpunk and New Wave classics, early hip-hop, or the nonpareil chart funk and R&B of the day — but the truth is, we listened to what was on the radio, whatever it was, whether it was any damn good or not.
Listening to Like, Omigod! is like that. So listen along with us, and join in the conversation. Remember: Not only do we do it for you, but we can’t do it without you. If we have accomplished much, it has been with your help.
And if we have seen far into the horizons of pop, it because we have stood upon the shoulderpads of giants.
#1: Devo, “Whip It” (1980)
#14 U.S. Billboard Hot 100, #8 on the Disco Top 100
Matt Springer – Though I doubt it was Devo’s intention, this track has the feel of “quintessential Eighties” for me — the synths, the danceability, the bordering-on-novelty subject matter. Pop in disc one of this compilation and immediately you know exactly where you stand. This guitar line defines the term “infectious.”
Dan Wiencek – Around the time this song came out, my nine-year-old brain filed it in roughly the same drawer as a bunch of stuff I heard on Dr. Demento, like “Fish Heads.” I think my brain hadn’t quite sussed out the distinction between novelty songs and regular/mainstream/serious songs. A few tunes in this inaugural installment kind of skirt that line, and this one had the advantage of a video that was just as eyebrow-raising as the music. (What was that we were saying about reviewing the videos along with the tracks?) Anyway, I liked the song then and I like it now, and as far as the “Fish Heads” comparison, it’s definitely a different kettle of … well, never mind.
Jack Feerick – Devo a wrote a lot of songs about pervy sex, domination, (emotional) masochism, and masturbation. “Whip It” is not one of them, but everyone assumes that it is. That amuses me to no end; Devo would never be that coy. Listen to earlier tracks like “Triumph of the Will” or “Jerkin’ Back and Forth.” They’re not exactly the kind of band that covers their tracks.
It amuses me, too, that this charted as a disco hit, because that’s not a beat for dancing; it’s a beat for driving. That sort of hyper shuffle on the snare is straight out of motorik — a subset of German rock specifically intended to be played while tooling down the autobahn with no speed limits. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but in retrospect it’s obvious that Devo were into that stuff — not just Kraftwerk (the matching outfits, the spazzy robotic movements), but Neu!, as well.
(Although the feel of “Whip It” is actually most reminiscent of Chrisma, who were an Italian band in the Krautrock mode; check out this clip for “C-Rock,” from 1977. What are the odds a copy of this made it to Akron?)
Dw. Dunphy – The opening salvo to what would eventually typify the sound of the ’80s. No, not everyone would adopt the clipped Booji-Boy vocalizations Devo deployed, but they would stat moving the keyboards to the front as the main instrument in the mix. Some would bypass the guitars altogether. For me this song marked a clear departure for Devo itself as the band began as a harsh punk/post-punk entity (Pair this against “Gut Feeling” for example). I think what gets me is that, to my ear, it sounds quite similar to “Gimme Some Slack” by The Cars, released the same year.
Will Harris – The best thing about this bunch of songs for me is that at least three of them — this one being the first — were among the 45s that were played in our lunchroom when I was in 6th grade…and, yes, I realize that dates me quite specifically, but that’s the way it goes. It was years before I knew anything about the band or anything else they’d ever recorded. In fact, given when our neighborhood got cable, I’m pretty sure I probably heard the Chipmunks’ version of the song before I ever so much as saw the video for Devo’s version. I have no idea if the band viewed the song as an albatross, given that it remains the most widely-known track in their catalog to this day, but given how many times I’ve heard it and how I still enjoy it every time, I’d say there are a lot worse songs Devo could be remembered for.
Chris Holmes – For a band that was so purposefully confrontational early in their career, Devo sure did manage to craft a beautiful, radio-friendly nugget of synth pop didn’t they? The more organic elements of the band’s sound were slowly being stripped away, even by their third album. But at this point they were perfectly positioned in the New Wave landscape for adherents who would’ve found Wall of Voodoo too dark or the Cars too safe.
And perhaps it’s because “Whip It” has been, well, whipped into submission on radio and TV, but my favorite track from Freedom of Choice is “That’s Pep.”
Jon Cummings – Now HERE’s a way to get a multi-disc anthology started.
“Whip It” may not be the most musically sound, thematically brilliant pop song out there, but it definitely does say, “Here comes the ’80s, mofos — and what are you gonna do about it?” I’m not much of a Devo fan, and was never a big fan of this single, even when it was out. Its uncertain irony always left me a bit nonplussed … was it a straight-up New Wave song that happened to become a pop hit? Was it a novelty take on New Wave? Did I really want to watch those high-school geeks pogo-ing around? I’m still a bit traumatized by the whole thing.
Mike Heyliger – I can’t say that I’ve ever known that many people who’d proclaim themselves fans of Devo (blame it on my geography,) but I was fortunate enough to have as a neighbor, someone who played “Q: Are We Not Men?” repeatedly and thus instilled in me an undying affection for this song. It’s one of those songs whose appeal has no boundaries. I was a 3 year old, bopping around like a maniac to this, and I’d imagine I’d be doing the same now at 36… if it was played in a place where bopping around like a maniac was allowed.
Keith Creighton – Growing up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, it was pretty freaking exciting to have local heroes Devo and The Pretenders usher in the decade; and to have Nine Inch nails take us out. Absolute genius synth line and drum kick. And 30 years before Jersey Shore and Honey Boo Boo, their theory of de-evolution kicked the Mayan’s ass in terms of realized prophecy.
Matt Wardlaw – It might be a sin, living so close to Akron and all of that, but I’ve never really been a huge Devo fan. As a kid, seeing Devo on MTV was a bewildering experience and yet at the same time, how could you not be attracted to the eccentric nature of the band, both musically and visually? So Devo for me exists in that area somewhere close to Frank Zappa where I know I’m not as big of a fan as I should be, but I have a definite appreciation for what they’re all about. They’ve also got a good anti-establishment/anti-everything viewpoint that I can get behind. And since Heyliger mentioned it, I’m sure that I was guilty of doing the Devo “Whip It” dance at one point or another.
David Medsker – I was so happy for Devo when this song hit. This got added to the local rock station around the same time as “She’s So Cold” by the Stones. The programmers must have been wondering what lay in store for the future.
The song itself holds up about as well as most of Devo’s singles. I really have to be in a mood to seek them out these days, but it’s easy to see why people gravitated to this. It didn’t sound like anything else out there at the time.
Dave Steed – I still have the ad that came inside a Devo album where you could purchase the hat, the full yellow suit and a ton of other items to make you just like them. I’m really happy they didn’t go full blown commercial after “Whip It” because they are still a quirky little pleasure for me.
#2: Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979)
#40 U.S. Hot 100, hit the top of the charts in Australia, France, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K. Look for a young Hans Zimmer in the video!
Harris – Loved it from the moment I heard it, so much so that Age of Plastic was one of the first CDs I ever bought. I can’t say that the entire album holds up quite as well as this song, nor would I claim that there’s anything on the Buggles’ second album, Adventures in Modern Recording, comes anywhere close to matching it. (This, for the record, is why it took me the better part of two decades to upgrade my copy of that album from cassette to CD.) I still think it’s funny that a song that so defines the ‘80s was actually released in the ‘70s. I know that Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes are continuing to work on their debut album as part of a band called The Producers — no relation to the ‘80s power pop band of the same name, of course — but all things being equal, I’d prefer that they revived the Buggles for one more album.
Medsker – What Will said. Loved this song from the moment I heard it, and still do. This band probably explains my musical meanings better than anyone. Pop sensibilities with slightly progressive leanings. That’s 80% of my music collection.
Springer – I’ll join the chorus of fans of The Age Of Plastic, the Buggles’ total lost New Wave classic from which this song was a single. Here I’m a sucker for the wistful piano opening that carries off into a nearly incomprehensible narrative of technology eating itself. The title gets all the credit, defines the song; but listen to the words and you realize it makes no goddamned sense. The Ben Folds Five cover really fulls up the wist.
Feerick – Though technically it predates the decade, for me this is where the ‘80s begin — because it confronts, in a very explicit way, one of the major themes of the decade’s music: to wit, pop music’s difficult relationship with its own past.
AM Gold traced pop from the beginnings of the rock era through its maturity and into a period that many saw as its collapse into decadence — prog and disco were both seen as evidence of pop music’s decline, although for different reasons — and the subsequent backlash and reaction, by way of punk. In the post-punk era, the idea was to build a new music out of the scattered remnants out of the old, keeping the bits that worked and avoiding the mistakes of the past. And undertaking that project meant making a fearless evaluation of the past, looking at where it went wrong, and assessing the way forward for the future.
It’s a complicated brief, but Trevor Horn was the guy to do it. Horn’s a hugely important figure, in my estimation, and hasn’t really been given the recognition he deserves for changing the sound of pop music. For me he’s right up there with Brian Eno, and for many of the same reasons — the way he’s able to continually square the circle and reconcile various modes of music; dance music and avant garde musique concrète with the Art of Noise, New Wave and pop classicism with the Buggles, even finding common ground between prog and disco with Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
And unlike Eno, who sometimes gets a little thinky and cerebral, Horn always values emotional accessibility. It’s neither pure nostalgia nor a knee-jerk rejection of the past (like Johnny Rotten’s “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt). From those opening moments — so pretty, and also so, so English; with the twinkling keyboards and fretless bass, it could pass for Kate Bush — Horn is writing a eulogy for classic rock, acknowledging his love for the stuff even as he takes it to task. “You were the first ones,” he says to an earlier generation of popstars, in the next breath chiding them for ruining it for everyone who came after: “You were the last ones.” But he’s not unsympathetic: when he says, “I’ve met your children — what did you tell them?” it’s hard not to be moved. And when the song finally breaks open in a flurry of real drums and screamin’ geetars — the very tools of those radio stars of the past — I admit it, I mist up.
Dunphy – I have a low tolerance to cheesed-out backup vocals, and the attached “Ow-ah ow-ahs” here have never settled right. But I do like the song and especially appreciate the melody which, when Geoff Downes plays it solo during Asia shows, is very pretty. Both Downes and Trevor Horn would be employed with Yes for the Drama album, and then Downes would take Steve Howe with him to form Asia, making him a prog rock homewrecker.
Wardlaw – Now when it comes to the Buggles, it’s crystal clear — I most definitely did some bad dancing to this song as a kid, again as an adult and I’d say chances are good that it will happen again sometime in the future. Everything that Dunphy is against about this song is everything that I’m all about. Cheesed out backing vocals, check. Those “Ow ah, ow ahs?” As a kid hearing this song on the radio, I was pretty convinced that the girl singing them was probably pretty hot. I don’t know that I’ve ever listened to a full Buggles album, so the evolution of Geoff Downes from this to Asia/Yes is a bit of a head scratcher for me. But in some form, “Video Killed The Radio Star” paved the way financially for Geoff to eventually tour with stacks and stacks of keyboards surrounding him…..and just think, if there hadn’t been a Buggles for Trevor Horn, perhaps we never would have heard the 90125 album by Yes. (At least that’s how I will see it)
That would have been sad, right?
Holmes – Well, here’s one of the great What-Ifs in modern pop music. For those who haven’t bothered to listen to the entire The Age of Plastic album, do yourself a favor and remedy that. It really is a marvel of the New Wave genre, but somehow was met with a collective “Whatever!” by the American record buying public. Which led, of course, to Geoff Downes moving over to Asia and Trevor Horn moving to Yes.
As for the song itself — its connection to MTV and the irony of the title has been touched on by hundreds of other writers so I’ll leave it be. I’ll simply say that no amount of insipid and uninspired cover versions can make me love it any less.
Cummings – Here’s a tune that became iconic all out of proportion to its (admittedly ambitious) novelty-tune origins, simply because it’s the videoclip that exploded MTV onto the world (nearly two years after the song’s release). It was really ahead of its time in late ’79; it kinda still seems ahead of our time today, in some ways. Of course, we get to sit here in 2013 with the irony of knowing that, eventually, Reality TV Killed the Video Star, but what the heck — as long as there are folks who fondly remember when we got our music from MTV, with all the wonderfulness and terribleness (and style over substance, mainly) that that entailed, “Video Killed the Radio Star” will hold a pretty special place in pop history.
Creighton – Yeah yeah — MTV… the real stories here are the two Buggles albums: absolutely stellar New Wave classix, setting the stage for Trevor Horn to produce my favorite album of all time: A Secret Wish by Propaganda (1985).
Wiencek – So, Trevor Horn was one this one, huh? Don’t care — it’s grade-B pop as far as my ears are concerned, with only the chorus really standing out much. I’m just old enough to remember the MTV connection, and I seem to remember having the sense, as young as I was, that this song was a joke I and others my age were in on — again, something with the air of a novelty song. But that might be the middle-aged critic looking back.
Heyliger – This is one of those songs I don’t remember hearing until I was already a grown up. I didn’t have MTV until the early ’90s, so the context of it being the first video played on the station is kinda lost on me. I also primarily know Trevor Horn as Seal’s producer, so this song seems kinda goofy coming from a guy that I normally equate with elegance. It’s fun enough, though… and certainly prophetic.
Creighton – As for the video: I was way too sensitive at that age to handle the Devo or Buggles videos. I thought they were sexually violating the lady in the “Whip It” video and I feared they were exterminating the test tube twins in the Buggles clip (I probably had just seen Logan’s Run around that time).
Of course, I was also stressed out with Madonna getting too damn close to that lion.
Dunphy – And I was worried about the lion getting too close to Madonna. Hy-yooooo!!!
#3: Meco, “Empire Strikes Back (medley)” (1980)
(Fan video with movie clips!)
Medsker – Ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Feerick – Hey, our first artistic link to the old AM Gold series! Hello, Meco, my old friend. Somehow I always knew it would be you.
Two things were inevitable when The Empire Strikes Back came out; first, that Meco was gonna do a tie-in record — and he’s have done it even if his “Star Wars/Cantina Band” record hadn’t sold a kajillion copies, because he’s just that much of a superfan — and second, that said record wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as the first.
The fault, though, is not simply that he’s retreading old ground thematically. It’s that his source material isn’t as interesting musically. For his first foray into the music of Star Wars, Meco was working with what was, in theatrical terms, an overture — a statement of all the major themes of the soundtrack — so he had a lot of different melodic motifs to choose from for his mix-and-match. Here we’ve got a medley of just two. And frankly, these two melodies are not that strong by John Williams standards. “The Imperial March,” in its original form, is interesting primarily for its driving rhythm, which is more a bolero than an actual march; whatever musical interest was left is lost entirely in the translation to a rock beat.
Put it this way; I owned a 45 single of the original symphonic version of “The Imperial March.” I did not own this, and would not have sought it out even as a 13-year old fanboy.
Jason Hare – I don’t think we can really blame Meco for “Empire Strikes Back.” Look, if you had a number one hit with your disco-infused take on the Star Wars theme, wouldn’t you want to try and repeat that success with the second movie? I’m just surprised he didn’t do it again for Return of the…oh wait, he fucking did.
Dunphy – I’ve never heard this before. I’m glad I didn’t too. Honestly, John Williams should have filed a restraining order. This would have been, I think, Domenico Monardo’s fourth or fifth discozation of Williams’ themes with more to come. To me that says “pathological.”
Feerick – Superfan, pathological… You say to-may-toe…
Creighton - During 1980, this was the greatest song in the history of the universe. More sinister and artsier than Meco’s “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” — this Sci-Hi-Fi-Disco masterpiece served as the soundtrack for my ultimate pre-teenage daydream: Carrie Fisher and Olivia Newton John, dancing and dueling to the death to win my love.
Holmes – This song makes me want to invent time travel, go back to Comiskey Park, and throw Meco on the bonfire at Disco Demolition Night.
Look, it’s not as if “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” was high art either, but it was at least a fresher idea and a stronger melody. This is just lazy horseshit. Besides, I already covered a much better cross-genre adaptation of this theme by Ron Carter on my site.
Heyliger – Sweet Jesus, this is awful. Don’t really have much more to say about this.
Cummings – This is stupid and pointless … as opposed to the original Meco medley, which was visionary and pop gold. Why bother creating the disco version of Darth Vader’s theme? I mean, really. Were there seriously enough sci-fi goober obsessives out there to drive this into the Top 20? Yes, there were, apparently.
Creighton – Ouch! Jon, that hurts. That said, you’re dead on….
Wardlaw – I’m a huge Star Wars fan and I’ve probably heard this song twice. When it came to novelty tunes, I was more into the “Hooked on Classics” and “Pac-Man Fever” side of things.
Springer – I’ll cop to being one of Jon’s “sci-fi goober obsessives” so this hits a bit of a sweet spot for me between the decadence of good disco and the memories of Star Wars when I was five and it was awesome. To those so quick to dismiss it, I would suggest this: While it’s easy to toss a few one-liners at it and walk away, pop on some headphones and give it one more try. Immerse yourself in Meco’s soundscape. I can’t believe I just typed that, but hell, DO IT. There’s a lot more going on here than just “Darth Vader disco”—an agitated bass line, some pretty hot guitar work, and an always-welcome lathering of strings. In fact, I would argue his first hit based on Star Wars is way more of a novelty record than this one; this I can get into without irony.
Besides, Meco’s true aural atrocity was still a few decades in the making. When the pearly gates appear tantalizingly close to the soul of Meco Monardo, it will be “Cousin Jar Jar” that dooms him forever to the pits of hell. (On a side note, Chris is spot-on that Empire Jazz is a quality listen; also try Sketches on Star Wars by the Trotter Trio and Cocktails in the Cantina, which takes a more Esquivel-inspired approach to John Williams’ music.)
Harris – All I can really say is that, for as much as I loved Meco’s Star Wars single, I had no idea he’d done one for Empire Strikes Back as well. Or if I did, the memory’s been completely blocked out.
Steed – I’ve still never seen a Star Wars movie from start to finish, so to me, this is just another bad tune.
Wiencek – I’ll defend a novelty song, but this thing? This was probably the one Empire Strikes Back tie-in product I didn’t buy or receive for Christmas. I could make some joke about how this deserves to be sealed in carbonite and hung in Jabba’s palace, where it could be subjected to endless ridicule, but I will refrain.
#4: Queen, “Another One Bites the Dust” (1980)
Queen’s best-selling single overall. #1 U.S. Hot 100, #2 on Billboard Disco Top 100.
Creighton – Best bass line in history. Nuff said.
Holmes – The thing I will always remember about this video from my childhood was that the face on Roger Taylor’s bass drum creeped me out. Aside from that, this song is proof positive that every member of Queen was perfectly capable of turning in stellar songs, one of the things that made them so great. And wouldn’t you know it, that very thing happened on The Game, which was incidentally the band’s last front-to-back classic album.
Unfortunately, the overwhelmingly positive reception to “Another One Bites the Dust” somehow instilled Queen with the belief that fans wanted an entire side of danceable songs, which led to the regrettable Hot Space. “Body Language” indeed!
Steed – My Mom had a couple dozen 45′s while I was growing up and this was one of them. I spun the heck out of it along with Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line,” Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love a Rainy Night” and Patrick Hernandez’s “Born To Be Alive.” No matter how overplayed this is, I will always love it.
Heyliger – This is the epitome of a mass appeal smash. It topped the pop charts, the rockers kinda dug it, the dancers kinda dug it, Michael Jackson kinda dug it (he’s the one who suggested it to Queen for single release, as the story goes), hip-hop fans loved it, and soul fans loved it (it peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Black chart.) Before I knew “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “We Will Rock You” or “Killer Queen,” I knew “Another One Bites the Dust.” And I loved it. And I still love it. Even though the bassline is stolen from Chic’s “Good Times.”
Wardlaw – Bad ass. Still. Allegedly, the refusal to license this song for the Rocky III movie meant that film producers ended up using “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor instead.
The Game was one of the first albums I purchased and it was also my first Queen album and still remains as my favorite. Looking at the track listing for the album now, it was mind-boggling stuff for me as a kid, to process and accept that it was the same band playing “Play The Game,” “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” all on one album. “Dust” was one of those songs in my youth that more than a few times, the song would end, I would pick up the needle, move it back to the beginning of the track and let it run again. I would have loved to have been in the studio to see how they arrived at the sonic carnage that unfolds at the midway point of the song.
Heyliger – Oh, the breakdown in “Another One Bites the Dust”-KICK. ASS. Song also has one of the best endings ever.
And…just because… here’s a Wyclef Jean cover of the song. (Actually, I kinda like this…)
Medsker – As the band fought to have their song get released as a single (they wouldn’t start sharing writing credits on all tracks until the end), John Deacon steps up with a monster, Chic-riffing bass line that sends Queen into the stratosphere. And to think, their next song would sound like Elvis. God love Queen.
Heyliger - Assuming you’re referring to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” that was actually the hit single prior to “Another One Bites the Dust,” wasn’t it?
Medsker – Damn, you’re right. And they released two singles in between as well. Man, how is that the fourth single out of five?
Cummings – When this was out, I remember being rather ambivalent to it. I thought it was a comedown, musically, from Queen’s rock-operettas and even from “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.,” Of course, hindsight reveals its iconic stature even more than did the absurd amount of airplay it received in its day. Interestingly, this wasn’t even the second-single choice to follow “Crazy Little Thing”; that was “Play the Game,” which stiffed short of the Top 40. What were they waiting for, before they unleashed this on the world? Perhaps for Chic’s “Good Times,” and the Disco Sucks trend generally, to recede a bit into the collective memory? (I heard on the radio just today that Brian May was inspired to create that bassline by Nile Rodgers.)
Hare – Pretty sure John Deacon came up with this bass part, not Brian May. I love this song. The bassline gets all the attention, but the vocal is absolutely fantastic. Try and belt out the second verse and you’ll see what I mean.
Feerick – Yeah, Deacon gets the sole writing credit on this one. And he didn’t just pinch the lick from Chic — he apparently (according to Bernard Edwards, anyway) spent some time hanging out with Chic in the studio. And it’s not just the bassline; that monster distorted piano is straight out of “Good Times,” too.
This, to me, also highlights the oddity of Queen’s creative routine — that they were less a band than a consortium of solo artists. Deacon wrote and recorded the whole thing, all instruments, and presented it to the band for overdubs of vocals, drums, and sound-effect guitars. That’s how they all did it — Taylor with his songs, May with his, Freddie with his. One of the stranger band dynamics in history.
That they made it work as long as they did — and produced a body of work that doesn’t sound hopelessly schizophrenic — falls entirely to Freddie, I think. He was able to give 110% whether he was singing a lyric that was deeply personal to him, or acting as a mouthpiece for one of the others. Only somebody with a real generosity of spirit, I think, can really inhabit somebody else’s songs like that — which explains why Freddie was not just admired, but beloved.
Holmes – One of the things that I love about The Game is that even though most of the songs don’t seem like a huge stylistic shift for Queen, it really does mark the end of their flamboyant side as last showcased on Jazz. I find it interesting that another favorite band of mine, Rush, also released an album in 1980 that left a lot of their old ’70s style behind.
I have to think there was a conscious decision of those bands’ parts to stake some new musical ground with a new decade. Or maybe I’m full of it.
Harris – The second of the 45s played in the cafeteria during my 6th grade lunches. One of the first 45s I ever had in my home (I choose this phrasing because I can’t remember if I bought it or my sister did), and I think I probably spun the flip side, “Don’t Try Suicide,” at least as much, possibly because of the rebelliousness of playing the line, “Nobody gives a damn.” “Another One Bites the Dust” stands strong even now, though I find I’m mildly surprised that it was their best-selling single over all, probably because I’ve heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” so many more times over the years.
Springer – I kind of miss the days when songs like this and Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” could penetrate the R&B or funk charts, and vice-versa for black acts with the pop charts; you don’t see Maroon 5 making any reasonable runs at those charts today, maybe just because they suck.
Wiencek – Fantastic song. It’s a pop vocal masterclass, with the song’s steadily mounting drama coming entirely from Freddie’s singing: understated and reserved in the beginning, and then increasingly intense as it goes on. And the bassline is fantastic, whoever they stole it from.
Dunphy – Best thing to happen to the band or the worst? Hard to hate this song but the trajectory it put them on blunted career momentum, at least for awhile.
#5: Kool and the Gang, “Celebration” (1980)
#1 on Billboard Dance, R&B, and Hot 100 charts, albeit at different times.
David Lifton - This was one of the songs we sang at my 6th grade graduation. Naturally, a bunch of us troublemakers changed it to “Masturbation.”
Hare – Don’t you still sing this? “Maaaaasturbate and cry, come on!”
Dunphy – Best thing to happen to the band or the worst (he asks again)? Huge hit. Huge, unavoidable hit. This track assured that Kool and/or the rest of his gang needn’t work ever again if they got a cut of every time the song was used at weddings/graduation parties/sweet 16 parties/class reunions/strip mall openings/car dealership sell-a-thons/senior citizen stretching exercise class/grocery store muzak/dentist office muzak/muzak muzak/the muzak you hear when they put you on hold for fifteen minutes while you’re trying to get information from the car dealership down by the strip mall.
But it stinks.
Feerick – Hard to assess this one critically with any distance, because it has never actually gone away. But if “Video Killed the Radio Star” feels like that start of the ‘80s, “Celebration” feels like the last gasp of the 1970s. It is a generic signifier of Good Times Happening from the decade that turned “party” into a verb, and as such it is as functional — and as aesthetically neutral — as a plastic Solo beverage cup.
Hare – I spent a lot of time hating on this song, but I don’t anymore. I’ve come to accept it for what it is. I’m starting to feel the same way about “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” actually. It doesn’t stand up to the rest of the canon, but if I didn’t know another single song by either artist, I’d be okay with it.
Steed – I’ve always considered this a great song but if I never hear it again, I’d be fine with it. Good for them for creating a song that is simply going to last forever but the only way this doesn’t make me sick at this point is if I’m drunk off my ass at the wedding it’s playing at.
Holmes – While it’s hard to argue against the overwhelming positivity of this song, to paraphrase Darth Vader, I find its lack of funk disturbing. And really, lazy wedding DJs, can we move on already?
Springer - I do like this song, although I don’t have much to say about it. I will say that this is going to be a verrrrry long exercise in frustration if our lines of demarcation between “quality” and “trash” somehow start to become influenced by what’s happened to these songs in the 20-30 years since their release. With respect and love, I have to ask: Why would you hate a song because people play it at joyous events and have fun when they hear it? How black is your heart, and what do we have to do to make it grow three sizes?
Holmes – Oh, I don’t hate it by any stretch. I just hate that it’s became a lazy go-to number for legions of shitty weekend DJs.
Wardlaw – I’ve heard this song at more than a few weddings, but this is one of those songs that I associate first and foremost with being at the roller skating rink. Songs like this were made for skating and also make a great soundtrack for those moments when you’re trying to trip the Skateasaurus. Hopefully this tradition still lives on among the heathen youth of today.
Wiencek – Just as people who talk about how cool they are usually aren’t, songs explicitly about having fun usually aren’t. There are all kinds of songs people play at weddings that I’m sick of hearing but that aren’t actually bad songs. (Like … like … well I’m sure there are some.) It’s the whole telling me to have a good time thing that never fails to get me down.
But to your larger point, this piece is definitely going to require a balance between discussing these songs strictly on their own merits and discussing their larger place in the culture; both approaches are necessary and valid.
Heyliger – I think it’s a mediocre (at best) song. Kool & the Gang have made significantly better music in both of their iterations.
It’s also the first song I can remember thinking “man, this song is overplayed” about, and that was long before I could even articulate the thought of something being overplayed.
Cummings – The tune that launched a million awful white-girl cheerleader routines is now one of the worst cliches of the post-disco era, what with those “woo-hoos!” and all. What’s saddest about it (to the extent that one can mourn the impact of a hit that likely made gajillionaires out of the entire Gang) is that it so completely overshadows the rest of the K&tG catalog, which has some pretty awesome stuff in it — from “Too Hot” to the hits off the “Emergency” album.
Wiencek – It could also be said that “Celebration” inaugurated the “lame party song” mini-genre, of which “All Night Long,” “Dancing on the Ceiling” and “Rhythm of the Night” are other outstanding examples. There was an awful lot of white-bread gettin’ down in the ’80s.
Holmes – Had to find some way to work off all the energy during those cocaine-fueled receptions.
Creighton – This song replaced The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (“Teenage Creighton, he’s only teenage Creighton”) as a song I could easily bastardize by inserting my own name while singing it on my paper route. Other than that, utter shit.
Heyliger – This might be the first song I remember being EVERYWHERE. On the news, on TV, and on the radio-there was even a Spanish version that got played on the radio. I can’t say I’ve ever heard it at a wedding, but that might just be due to the fact that my married friends have good taste in music. Kool & The Gang had already evolved from a hard funk band with jazz influences to a disco group (essentially) but this song is really what sent them straight into MOR. It’s actually the nadir of their catalog-give me “Joanna” or “Fresh” over this piece of crap any day.
Wiencek – Mike, you’ve seriously never heard this at a wedding? Every one of your friends and family have too good a taste in music to sink this low? Must be nice. I would have an easier time remembering the few weddings where this tired old chestnut wasn’t wheeled out. I have no recollection of this as a new song; it always felt as if I’d already heard it a hundred times, and I can’t get into it at pretty much any level.
Heyliger – If I have heard it at a wedding, it’s been mentally blocked out.
Holmes – It usually makes an appearance some time after “The Electric Slide” and “We Are Family” but before “Last Dance.”
Dunphy – But always before the Chicken Dance.
Heyliger – I’ve also (thankfully) never heard “We Are Family” at a wedding, and I have not the slightest clue what the “chicken dance” is.
Feerick – O lucky man!
Hare – We could do a whole other roundtable on wedding/Sweet 16/Bar Mitzvah songs: “Celebration,” “We are Family,” “YMCA,” “Hands Up,” etc. And it’d be interesting to figure out which ones are cross-generational. Every Bar Mitzvah I attended ended with everyone’s arms around each other singing “That’s What Friends Are For,” but I’d be surprised if that happens any more.
Dunphy – Seriously: Do you think all these old disco acts just flog themselves mercilessly when they gaze upon the wedding DJ circuit and see their residuals floating away with the fizz in the sparkling wine?
Harris – Some put this track on their wedding reception’s do-not-play list. I’m pretty sure we didn’t, although I can’t recall actually dancing to it…as opposed to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” but that’s a story for another time. This was almost certainly my first exposure to Kool and the Gang, and it so set the tone for my expectations for their music that I was floored the first time I heard “Jungle Boogie” on the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction. Kool, can you and your gang ever forgive me? I had no idea you had the funk!
David Medsker – Here is my “Celebration” story:
One of the criteria when it came to deciding who would DJ my wedding was that they would abide by the list I gave them of songs to play and songs that they cannot play under any circumstances. It was a couple of pages long, and “Celebration” was at the top of the list. As a former DJ, I had seen it played at every wedding I had been to up to that point, and while it worked in terms of filling the floor, it just seemed lazy. Did you even ask the bride and groom what they wanted to hear?
Well, ours would be different, damn it. And as it turned out, it was, but not in the way that I imagined. Our DJ was spectacular, doing everything we asked her to do…but then I see my friend Steve grab the mic, and I know exactly what’s coming.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I like to meddle. And when I saw the list that David and Deb gave their DJ, I had to meddle. Sorry.” At this point, he gives the DJ the cue, and as I watched her reach for the Play button, I knew what I’d hear. Dum dum dum-dum, splash! Apparently everyone else knew too, because once they heard the intro, the place exploded. Everyone — and I mean everyone — formed a circle, arms around each other, and danced to “Celebration” like it was their last night on Earth. And doggone it, I have a huge soft spot for the song now.
Prior to this, I thought the song was just bland. Only later did I understand that it was an act of self-preservation by a band who was trying to survive in the post-Disco Demolition world. But even that wasn’t enough to make me like the song. But the bit at the wedding… I give it a pass.
Holmes - To follow up on Medsker’s excellent story — we also provided our DJ with a list of songs that, if played, would result in me tearing up his check and throwing it in his face. It was just considerably shorter and mostly consisted of stupid choreographed dance numbers. We also warned him against turning the sound up too loud, which seems to be another shitty DJ move.
Anyway, what I also did was insist on a handful of non-traditional songs I insisted be played, such as “Dance the Night Away” by Van Halen and “New York Groove” by Ace Frehley. Because that’s how I fucking roll, baby.
Medsker - I went to a wedding last summer in New Jersey, and these two clowns were trying so hard to look like they should be working a club, mixing in and out of songs in 30 to 45 seconds, and it was louder than God. Worse, they were rushing the bride, groom, and their parents off the floor after playing a verse and a chorus of each of their songs. That, to me, is unforgivable.
Wiencek – The nadir for me was the wedding where the two DJs wore hats and sunglasses and did a fucking Blue Brothers routine at the start of the set, completely upstaging the bride and groom.
Holmes – Yeah, that shit never would’ve happened to me. I allowed my wife total latitude on most aspects of the planning, but I took an active hand in the entertainment part. I even gave the DJ a list of acceptable CDs to use for the pre-reception cocktail hour.
Steed – I chose my DJ very carefully after interviewing a bunch of people and gave him a list of 6 songs not to play and 5 to play and then told him what general vibe we wanted and allowed him to run with it. Of course I walked into his office and saw Van Halen, Madonna and Guns n Roses album covers framed on his wall. Easy call on my part. No “Celebration” up there, though.
Springer – In retrospect, I think I got totally fucked (metaphorically) by our wedding DJ. I provided lists asked them to not play certain songs, and I think it was mostly ignored. Fortunately I was so happy to be married that it didn’t bother me too much.
Ours had a bit of the exhibitionist in them too — a married couple where the wife would miraculously show up in a dress the same or similar color as the bridesmaids, and had these elbow-length eighties Skinemax gloves, which she’d use to beckon guests onto the dancefloor.
All that said, they were nice people.
Heyliger - I wonder if, as an ordained minister, I have the right to beat the shit out of crappy wedding DJs. Must check the rule book.