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Fans of the super laid-back, southern California twang of the Eagles must have gone into cardiac arrest upon hearing the first synth-blast chords of Don Henleyâ€™s first solo single, â€œJohnny Canâ€™t Readâ€. Teamed with new writing partner Danny Kortchmar, Henley seemed eager to leave the Eagles in the dust and update his sound and approach for the 80s. The resulting album, â€œI Canâ€™t Stand Still,â€ is awash with synthesizers, mechanical percussion flourishes and hiccupy, New Wave-influenced vocals. As a young eighth-grader, I was familiar with the Eagles thanks to a worn-out copy of â€œGreatest Hitsâ€ my older brother received one Christmas â€“ however, I wasnâ€™t a big fan. So, when I first heard â€œJohnny Canâ€™t Readâ€ on our local Top 40 station one night, I was surprised to discover it was not in fact the Boomtown Rats, but rather from the same guy who once warbled â€œWelcome to the Hotel Californiaâ€ over and over until I changed the station.
â€œJohnny Canâ€™t Readâ€ was less a scathing indictment of the failures of our educational system than more of a catchy Objectivist shrug:
â€œIs it teacherâ€™s fault?
Is it mommyâ€™s fault?
Is it societyâ€™s fault?
Well, is it Johnnyâ€™s fault?
Musically, â€œJohnnyâ€ seems to have been influenced by The Nailsâ€™ â€œ88 Lines About 44 Womenâ€ and the Jim Carroll Bandâ€™s â€œPeople Who Diedâ€, with its rote, deadpan reading and rapid-fire delivery, especially near the end where Don ends up yelling â€œWOKKA WOKKA WOKKA!!â€ in his best Pac Man impersonation. Another nice touch near the end is when Don tosses off the line â€œThereâ€™s a new kid in townâ€ which serves a dual purpose â€“ it reminds the listener of who he is, while announcing who he is now. Alas, it was all a bit too much for Top 40, as the single stalled at a disappointing #42.
Now the follow-up single to â€œJohnny Canâ€™t Read,â€ that youâ€™ve heard. â€œDirty Laundryâ€ was a huge hit, which eventually climbed to #3 and basically saved Don Henleyâ€™s otherwise-stillborn solo career. With one near-hit and one blockbuster to his debut albumâ€™s credit, it was time for single number three.
â€œI Canâ€™t Stand Stillâ€ was the choice, an almost Eagles-y ballad but with decidedly New Wave production. It always struck me as some sort of unholy mix of Zeppelin’s “D’yer Maker” crossed with the Payolas â€œEye Of A Strangerâ€. The organ/synth riff drives the song, underscoring the increasing desperation and agitation of the lyrics. And where there used to be a squiggly Joe Walsh guitar solo had this been an Eagles tune, here we get a squiggly synth solo that must have driven Eagles fans insane. I loved it.
Unfortunately, not enough people did, so â€œI Canâ€™t Stand Stillâ€ stood still at #48. Luckily, this didnâ€™t deter Henley from mining New Wave to embellish his second solo album, â€œBuilding The Perfect Beastâ€ â€“ and he was rewarded with two huge smashes, â€œBoys of Summerâ€ and â€œAll She Wants To Do Is Danceâ€.
The drummer for the Eagles using a drum machine â€“ who would imagine?
â€Johnny Canâ€™t Readâ€ peaked at #42 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart in 1982.
â€œI Canâ€™t Stand Stillâ€ peaked at #48 on the same chart in 1983.
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