White Label Wednesday: Gino Vannelli, “Black Cars”

Written by Music, Popdose, White Label

wlw.jpg

For many rock acts that made their mark in the ‘70s, 1985 was the year they faced off against what could be called the New Wave Borg. The rules were simple: assimilate or die. And man, oh man, did they do some crazy things in order to adapt. ZZ Top put artificial record scratching sounds in one of their songs. Dire Straits wrote a song about the very thing that was killing them (MTV), and wound up with the biggest hit of their career. Heart’s hard rockin’ Wilson sisters transformed themselves into porcelain popsters. Bands from the ‘60s (the Monkees, the Moody Blues) would reboot their careers in similar fashion the following year. There is no other way to say it: it was downright terrifying to watch, never mind listen to.

And yet, for as ugly as some of those rock makeovers were (see Dave Steed’s breakdown of the Animals’ New Wave record, if you dare), the musicians that buttered their bread on the opposite end of the musical spectrum suffered even worse. That’s right, I’m speaking of the men who mined the vaults of Mellow Gold.

Dan Fogelberg (R.I.P.) tried reinventing himself as a rocker with “Language of Love,” then abandoned pop for country (by way of bluegrass) after the public didn’t take to his “new style.” Paul Davis (R.I.P.) signed with pop-minded Arista and scored some of his biggest hits, but hated the direction his music was headed and also abandoned pop for country, his first love. In the musician’s equivalent of the last act of the scoundrel, Air Supply was singing Jim Steinman songs. Tick, tick, boom. Wuss rock was dying a gruesome death, and nobody cared.

Gino Vannelli was not going out like that.

After a then-unheard of four-year absence since his 1981 album Nightwalker, which spawned the Top Ten hit “Living Inside Myself,” Vannelli shed his Mellow Gold image in favor of his first love, R&B – the man was the first white artist to appear on Soul Train, after all – and made a naked play for the MTV generation with the title track from Black Cars. The song is definitely more R than B, all handclaps, drums and synths and no real bass line to speak of (tribute to “When Doves Cry”?). Vannelli purists – should such a thing exist, that is – were surely crying foul, but the move makes sense in retrospect, since R&B was still suffering from the Disco Demolition backlash, and even the blackest acts were forced to be more white (ahem, Kool and the Gang).

You can’t blame Vannelli for trying to court the viddie kiddies; the playing field was still pretty open in terms of who was allowed on Top 40 radio, so Vannelli wasn’t subject to the Logan’s Run clause that has prevented any artist over 30 not named Carlos Santana from reaching the upper echelons of the Billboard charts after 1995. One thing is for sure: Vannelli definitely dressed the part for his close-up.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/1m39piBT2vE" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Look at those clothes, most likely on loan from Don Johnson. (Wisely, Vannelli avoided pastel.) And is it just me, or does he bear a striking resemblance to Antonio Banderas? But never mind that now, look at the women. All wearing black cocktail dresses, black gloves and holding Polaroid cameras? If only he had them all carrying guitars (or keytars, which would have been more song-appropriate), “Black Cars” might have been a hit of “Addicted to Love” proportions.

Or not, to be honest. “Black Cars” is cute and, as New Wave makeovers go, does not completely rob Vannelli of his dignity (again, see the Animals album). But this song clearly had a ceiling to it, and it was well below the top spot on the charts. “Black Cars,” both the album and single, failed to crack the Top 40, but Vannelli would return in 1987 to take one last swipe at the brass ring (while sporting one of the worst mullets in rock history). The style of his first single, “Wild Horses”? Mellow Gold, of course.

Gino Vannelli – Black Cars (Extended Mix)