Pablo Cruise – Whatcha Gonna Do?
When I was growing up, the fastest way to build your vinyl collection without a heavy upfront cost was to join the Columbia House Record Club. And that is how I came to own not one, but two Pablo Cruise albums.
The Columbia House pitch was simple: buy 11 records now for $1.29, then seven more over three years (at highly inflated prices) to fulfil your membership obligations. (The reality was, of course, not that simple, but that isn’t our concern right now.) If you paid a bit more at the start, you got another three albums and only had to buy six more to escape their clutches. The goal going in was to buy those extra six as fast as you could, then quit and rejoin. In fact, when you quit, they would usually make you an enticing offer of free music to stick around. Plus there were coupons that came after so many purchases that enabled you to get more records at a discount. The whole package was irresistible.
Every month, you would get a mailer listing records available for purchase, along with an order card that included the month’s featured album. You had a few weeks to return the card, otherwise that album was shipped to you automatically. Columbia House was banking on its largely youthful membership forgetting to return the cards, and this was how I ended up with albums I had no interest in, like Journey’s “Captured”, which I ended up liking anyway.
The idea of having hundreds of records to choose from seems like a great idea, but finding 14 that I actually wanted when I first joined in 1979 proved challenging. Most of the offerings were past their best before dates, and included a lot of artists I had no interest in then (I think of the Springsteen records that I missed out on, not long before “The River”, later obtained through Columbia House, made me a fan). The first two Elvis Costello records were easy picks, along with two (well, three, since one was a double album) Peter Frampton discs. I got the first Boston and Eddie Money albums in that order, Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell”, the “FM” soundtrack, and Chicago’s “Hot Streets” (the first post-Terry Kath vs handgun record). And, with the clock winding down, for reasons that are no clearer to me now with the wisdom gained in the intervening years, Pablo Cruise’s “A Place in the Sun” and “Worlds Away”.
Now, this is not intended as a dis of the band, who I liked just fine. But they were sort of just there, delivering a few nice pop songs to slot in around the RSO domination of 1977-78 radio, fighting for scraps like every other pop group not named the Bee Gees. They weren’t an act to fall in love with, to obsess about, to study.
Their signature hit was “Love Will Find A Way”, but “Whatcha Gonna Do?” is the song that has lived with me these many years. It has a sunny disco/funk-lite beat (it feels like it should have been used in “Boogie Nights” – try not to see Wahlberg and Reilly dancing to this), and the entire song is a dire warning from well meaning friends to a man who doesn’t realise how good his romantic situation is. What is weird to me is that I probably didn’t give a moment’s thought to this song in the years since I stopped listening to the album, yet I have on many, many, many occasions spontaneously sung the lines “And all at once, you’re ready to hang it up / Cause things didn’t turn out the way you planned, no / And all your friends, they callin’ you a fool / Cause you don’t know a good thing when you got it in your hand”. I can’t explain it, other than perhaps that the song simply became a part of my pop culture identity in that subconscious way that we all carry odd little things around in our heads, like the Habs third string goalie in 1973-74 (Michel Plasse) or Cher’s full name (Cherilyn Sarkisian) or the name of Ross’ monkey on “Friends” (Marcel). Pablo Cruise, without me ever knowing it, became a part of who I am.
And here’s the kicker: they were a great band, and anyone who says otherwise is just wrong. I replayed all of “Worlds Away” recently (of the two albums, it was my preference back in the day) and was floored by the musicianship (the piano starting at 2:11 of the title track is breathtaking, and it’s followed by some serious shredding), the nimble melodies, the carefree spirit (don’t tell me these guys don’t look like a great hang). The band explained the name (there is no Pablo) as representing an “honest, real, down-to-earth person” with a “fun-loving and easygoing attitude towards life”. We could probably all benefit from being a bit more like Pablo Cruise.