Like, Omigod! Digging Through the ’80s Pop Culture Box, Part 12
A super-sized fun-pak to round out Disc 3!
#16 Bertie Higgins, “Key Largo” (1982)
Billboard Top Ten; #1 adult contemporary.
Jon Cummings – My secret shame: Bertie Higgins made me watch Bogart movies for the first time when I was in high school. If I had been just a bit older, I probably would have let Rupert Holmes talk me into drinking my first pina colada. It’s not fair that such wonderful things are attached to such yucky music.
Jack Feerick – Rupert Holmes made me watch The King of Comedy. Wait — I’m sorry, that was Rupert Pupkin. Well, same difference.
Chris Holmes – I’m sure much fun will be had at the bearded one’s expense, but let me just say I really like this song. Granted, I have some decidedly personal and non-musical reasons for feeling that way, but isn’t that always the way with music?
Speaking of which, one of these months I really must get around to another one of those columns.
Feerick – *nods head vigorously*
Dw. Dunphy – This is why adult contemporary gets a bad name. You get lured into a perfectly mellow sounding song only to realize it’s some kind of fan-fiction nerd-on using Casablanca references and, as the name suggests, Key Largo as the title. And his name is Bertie for heaven’s hoppin’ hotcakes… we made Bertie a star. That is just cruel, yo.
Dave Lifton – To a dateless boy in his early teens, the beauty of a ballad, in either AC or power form, is how it can provide a glimpse into what he can look forward to when/if a girl decides to acquiesce. After all, it doesn’t matter how accurate its portrayal is, because how does he know, right? It’s only with years of hindsight that the now-man can look back and laugh at how such feelings really are, and how shitty the song that initially spurred said feelings is.
Jack Feerick – I’ll buck the trend, here, and admit that I find this to be a perfectly acceptable romantic ballad. It probably doesn’t hurt that I’ve had a major Bogart fixation since I was a kid; but Bertie’s manly baritone (FUN FACT! For years I thought this was a Gordon Lightfoot song!) seals the deal. About as good as Adult Contemporary gets — with all that implies.
But here’s a thing. Dressing like a pirate for a photo shoot or a video — that’s a fun, playful thing. But dressing like a pirate all the time — that’s a pathology.
And then there’s this:
#17 Buckner and Garcia, “Pac-Man Fever” (1982)
US Top Ten, and a million-seller.
(Live on Solid Gold!)
Lifton – Sometimes I hear a new novelty song and think, “Come back, Buckner & Garcia. All is forgiven.” (a line I stole from J.D. Considine‘s Short Takes in the back of Musician magazine). Of course, I say those things until I’m put in a position where I actually get to hear Buckner & Garcia.
Feerick – I tried to warn you, didn’t I?
Cummings – This wasn’t a hit in my hometown, thank goodness, so I practically never heard it. This is the sort of cheap, no-account exploitation of fads that gave novelty songs a bad name. Then again, I kinda dug B&G’s earlier “Merry Christmas in the NFL,” so don’t listen to me.
Holmes – Yeah, I loved all things Pac-Man in the early ’80s but this song was and always be a piece of shit. Even as shameless money grabs go, this is lazy and uninspired. If there’s any game that does not lend itself to a narrative song, it’s this one. And musically, the best thing “Pac-Man Fever” has to offer are the arcade sound effects sprinkled throughout.
But seriously, this thing blows. It’s like a Ray Stevens b-side, only not as “funny.”
Dunphy – Come back, Bertie Higgins. All is forgiven. This is a song only Dr. Demento could love. That and the million goat-spankers that bought this record.
Feerick – If you stayed for the closing credits of Wreck-It Ralph, then you know that Buckner and Garcia are still at it, and still beating their single joke into the ground. They’re like a filk band at this point; talk about your niche product. And as I’ve noted before, my videogaming experience essentially begins and ends with Pong, so I was never part of the niche. Next!
#18 Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (1982)
A #1 hit throughout the English-speaking world. Six million copies sold.
At one point, the single was selling 60,000 copies per day.
Dunphy – Turn around, Bright Eyes! This song gets a lot of guff but the sound of it is big and theatrical. Doesn’t matter that the lyrics are stinky proto-Twilight dreckballs or that Jim Steinman is just flogging his book of tricks mercilessly throughout. Somehow I’m giving this one positive vibes. Just keep those creepy Village of the Damned kids away from me.
Lifton – As Jeff Giles put it when we discussed this song on the first Chart Attack podcast five years ago. “Jim Steinman…Fuck that guy.”
Feerick – This is the aural equivalent of a spite-fuck. Meat Loaf won’t make another record with Steinman, so Steinman is all like, “I’ll show that bitch,” and he goes out and picks up Bonnie Tyler in some dive bar (this may in fact have been literally what happened) and takes her back to his place and tries to make a Meat Loaf record without Meat Loaf. But like all spite-fucks, this is just empty and desperate and no fun at all, and it just leaves you remembering the good times now long gone, and now Steinman has locked himself in the bathroom, drunk and crying, and he won’t even lend poor Bonnie Tyler cab fare home.
David Medsker – Has anyone brought up the literal video for “Total Eclipse”? Best literal ever.
Heyliger – I would have to agree, even though most of the Literal Videos were pretty good.
Lifton – I was tempted, but decided to quote Jeff swearing instead.
Feerick – Sony doesn’t like it when we talk about literal videos. *sad trombone*
Holmes – Sure the video is a hoot, but this song has to be the absolute nadir of that special brand of treacly, maudlin songcraft the late ’70s and early ’80s, particularly, produced in spades. I blame Meat Loaf for horseshit like this.
Cummings – C’mon, Chris — this was nowhere NEAR the nadir for overproduced, hyper-lyricized and over-dramatic Jim Steinman pop. In fact, how totally stupid was Meat Loaf for temporarily rejecting Steinman’s songs, resulting in this track going to Tyler and “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” going to Air Supply? (OK, well, how stupid is Meat Loaf generally, with or without Steinman?) I haven’t heard everything Steinman has written, by a long shot, but I’ll humbly suggest that the crap written for Bat Out of Hell II is far worse than “Total Eclipse” (which deserved all of its enormous success, as far as I’m concerned).
You’d think Steinman’s official nadir would have been “Dance in My Pants,” off his 1980 solo album — but I’m a big fan of that track.
#19 Toto, “Africa” (1982)
#1 US, #3 UK.
Holmes – For a middle-class white kid with zero appreciation of what culture or life was like outside suburban New Jersey, “Africa” was about as exotic as my sonic palette got in ’83, when it hit #1. Of course I know better now, but this is still a killer song. I don’t think Toto IV is as winning overall as its reviewers would have you believe, but on the tunes where it hits on all cylinders it’s just about some of the best pop music of the period.
Feerick – Funnily enough, Chris, Jeff Porcaro says the idea of this song is that “A white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.” Whew! So the ignorant, patronizing tone of the lyrics is intentional, then! Well, that’s a relief.
Much as I want to hate this, I find I can’t — it’s just so damned tasty, with the subtle cross-rhythms and such. There’s nothing remotely African about it, of course, but it’s pretty nonetheless.
The chorus always catches me short, though. There’s such a leap in register from the verse melody to the refrain that instead of hearing a high chorus melody with low harmonies coming in after, my brain processes it as a high harmony line with the melody entering late. Probably not the intended effect, but it’s interesting to hear — like one of those Magic Eye pictures, but for your ears.
Cummings – Any song that can hit #1 while containing the line “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a memphis above the Serengeti,” and keeping a straight face about it, is aces in my book. Toto didn’t deserve a single one of those Grammys, though.
Feerick – Oh, it’s even better than that. The actual line is “Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus from the Serengeti.”
Think about that. He’s talking about the majesty of a mighty mountain, by comparing it… to another mountain. A different, arguably better-known mountain.
That’s a special kind of stupid, right there. That raises banality to a kind of artform.
Cummings – Why did I think it was “Memphis”? Was I confusing one mid-size American city for another, crazier one (Phoenix)? Are the names of ALL mid-size American cities also synonymous with a bird rising from the ashes? “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a Baltimore above the Serengeti”?
Ehhh, whatever. Most of Toto’s career was all about “raising banality to a kind of artform.”
Dunphy – Another song that wins in spite of itself. It just sounds great. Great, great, great. Who cares if I want to jam sharpened pencils in my ears over the enunciation of SER-en-get-EEE? This still doesn’t match “I Can’t Hold You Back” in my mind.
Lifton – Even on an mp3 through tiny computer speakers, you can hear how impeccably performed and produced this is. As a song, it blows, but as a record, it’s as good as you’ll ever hear. And hey, it gave us these 49 seconds of glorious television.
#20 Scandal, “Goodbye to You” (1982)
Peaked at #65 US.
Cummings – Wasn’t Scandal super-cool? And then, didn’t Patty Smyth blow the whole thing — and make you question how cool Scandal had been in the first place — when she started singing ballads with Don Henley? I love “Goodbye to You,” but let’s face it — it was “The Warrior” that seared Scandal into our consciousness. I’ll never forget the 450-mile drive from my house to Bob Cashill’s house that summer of ’84, and flipping the radio dial incessantly so I could hear “The Warrior” as many times as humanly possible through Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
Feerick – Must disagree, Jon — I liked these guys better at this time, when they were just “Scandal,” before they became “Scandal featuring Patty Smyth (Bang, Bang).” That’s always a bullshit marketing move, and it’s always the beginning of the end for band cohesion. I think it gets pushed onto bands by the marketing people; they know how to sell bands of dudes, and they know how to sell girl singers in diva mode, but they can’t square the circle and sell an entity that does both at once. I’m convinced it’s a gender thing; you almost never get a band “featuring” a male singer. (The lone exception I can think of would be “Careless Whisper,” credited to Wham! featuring George Michael. And again, it keeps coming back to “Careless Whisper”…)
Any truth to the rumor that Eddie asked Patty Smyth to front Van Halen after David Lee Roth took a powder? Now that would have been an interesting marketing challenge…
Heyliger – For some odd reason, “Goodbye to You” always makes me think of The Facts of Life. Did the girls sing it in a talent show or something like that? Maybe it was another sitcom…
Java Joel Murphy – I remember Jermaine Jackson, Stacey Q & El DeBarge appearing on Facts Of Life.
Anyone remember the Ray Parker Jr. episode of Gimme A Break?
I smell an article coming on …
Heyliger – I remember Ray Parker Jr. on Gimme a Break. Didn’t he and Nell sing “Heaven Knows” by Donna Summer?
Also remember Andy Gibb on Gimme a Break...as well as on Punky Brewster.
Dunphy – Dang, I don’t even remember this one. Where the heck was I?
Holmes – Man, the early ’80s really were a golden age of outstanding female pop/rock vocalists weren’t they?
Lifton – Earlier today I saw a tweet from Dan Wilson that said, “If your song must have a bridge or middle eight, then try to make sure that it’s the best part of the song. #xtcforexample.” “Goodbye to You” is a perfect example of what happens when the opposite happens. Everything about it cooks until the 1:18 mark where it meanders for a minute — including the keyboard solo — before the chorus kicks back in. Too bad, because it’s otherwise a great pop song.
Feerick – Well. let’s face it — unless it’s a piano, and unless your name is Ben Folds, a keyboard solo is almost always a bad idea in a rock song. You can’t even jump around while you’re playing it, fa chrissakes! What’s the point?
#21 Taco, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1983)
Peaked at #4 US, because the ‘80s were fucking weird.
Dunphy – This always sounded rather sinister to me, like Taco was a pod person doing what it thought was popular music in order to steal our precious fluids. Problem is that pod people, they aren’t too bright and this one landed a few decades too late. So instead of a spaceman who ate the soul of Fred Astaire and infiltrated 1930s Hollywood, Taco sounds like a curio with a Klaus Nomi complex.
Feerick – You’re on to something there, Dw. All that stuff I’ve said about pop negotiating its difficult relationship with its own past applies in spades here. This isn’t just another cover done up in the modern style, as with “I Want Candy.” In 1983 Taco’s brand of synthpop represented not just modernity, but The Future, and doing Irving Berlin in electro-cabaret style — and having it sound so weirdly natural — seemed to say something about history repeating, about all eras being one, about some things never changing… Well, it seemed to say something, anyway, however ill-defined.
Complicating matters further is Berlin’s music considered in itself. The son of a temple cantor, Berlin worked echoes of Hebrew modes and melodies into his Tin Pan Alley pop, setting the tone for decades of American music. (There’s a reason why the Nazis hated jazz.) In the process, he found for himself the future of music by grappling with its (and his) past. Taco repeats the process, and makes it explicit.
And like you said, he also makes it creepy. Without overselling it, he plays with the dissonance of song and style. His blankly smiling mask of a face — the heavy makeup, the huge, sparkling teeth, his very European-ness — calls to mind the fascist backdrop of Cabaret. And when the closing moments of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” collapse into a mini-medley of song fragments before the main theme comes in again, heard at a distance, not so much fading as retreating — it sounds like a man rummaging through half-familiar, half-forgotten memories that slip away before he can make any sense of them. If that’s not a perfect metaphor for the rock era’s relationship with pre-rock pop, man, I don’t know what is.
Holmes – Dammit if I don’t always mix up Taco and Falco. But enough about that. There are two things, and two things only, that make this song work — the timeless songwriting of Irving Berlin and those delicious synthesizer arrangements. I can totally envision Daft Punk doing something even better with this material.
Cummings – My dad decided that before I went off to college in the fall of ’83, I should spend the summer working in a factory so I could save some bucks and see how the other 47% live. So I pulled a graveyard shift sorting auto parts to weed out the defective ones, and I had a Walkman radio on almost all the time so that I wouldn’t have to listen to the conversation from a collection of rednecks unlike any I had previously encountered. Amidst all the other crazy music that was out that summer, from “Electric Avenue” to “The Safety Dance” to “Our House,” it was the sheer ridiculousness of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” that seemed most ironic on those summer night when I alternated between disbelief at the life I was sampling at that moment, and excitement of the life to come.
None of which is to say that Taco’s hit doesn’t completely suck. Yet I have a strong fondness for it. Still, can somebody please explain to me the exact difference between this track and White Town’s “Your Woman”?
Lifton – Even though I hate ragging on anything called “Taco” that doesn’t end in “Bell,” Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder’s version of this song is much, much better.