Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #38

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.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #37

Player – Baby Come Back

In 1978, Robert Stigwood was king of the music industry, and it wasn’t close. He’d been doing just fine before then – managing (Cream, the Bee Gees) and booking (The Who) bands, owning a scriptwriters’ agency (where the British originals that became “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son” found a home), producing musicals for Broadway (“Hair”) and film (“Tommy”), and running his record label, RSO – but it went to another level that year. On September 24, 1977, “How Deep Is Your Love”, the first Bee Gees single from the upcoming “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, was released, and this began an onslaught of single after single that dominated the charts in the coming year, and into the next. Add to this multiple hits from the “Grease” soundtrack and Andy Gibb, along with Stigwood mainstay Eric Clapton, and you couldn’t listen to your radio for very long – and no one wanted to – without hearing an RSO jam.

A chunk of my own limited cash went into Stigwood’s pockets: the little red cow that was the RSO logo was on a lot of my favourite 45s that year. And, in the middle of this were a bunch of transplants to California with an ode to lost love. I certainly liked “Baby Come Back” at the time – I owned a copy – but I never gave the band a moment’s thought, and could not have picked them out in a police lineup. (They still do that, right? Did they ever do that? Or is it just on TV?) And when it comes up on a ‘70s playlist, I’m happy to hear it. But the band was never interesting to me. That is, it wasn’t until Ronn Moss showed up on “The Bold and the Beautiful”.

Soap operas were a big part of my viewing entertainment from the mid and late ‘70s (“Another World”) into the early and mid ‘80s (“General Hospital”, of course) and late ‘80s (“Santa Barbara”, baby!). I loved the form, and would even follow the stories of shows I didn’t have time to watch, through summaries in “Soap Opera Digest”. I would also read the actor profiles in the magazine, which is how I learned that the square-jawed actor playing Ridge Forrester was a former rock star. I thought his career arc was pretty cool. The only other music stars I knew from a soap were Rick Springfield (whose acting and music careers followed different paths) and Jack Wagner (whose music success flowed out of his soap career). Moss had been at the top of the heap – three weeks at #1 – and here he was, working away at a new career.

Now, Moss can present as a little bit ridiculous as a person. I learned this when I stumbled across an episode of “Celebrity Wife Swap” that he appeared on. But he was completely comfortable with this ridiculousness, which is rather charming. And though his soap hunk days are long past, he’s a soap producer now, and doing well at it.

And he’s still making music! So, as part of my commitment to bringing you the best in music journaling, I listened to some of it. There were multiple choices, so I went with the oldest, 2004’s “I’m Your Man”, on the presumption his younger voice would sound best. And I didn’t completely hate it. There’s a Latin feel on a lot of tracks (think Enrique Iglesias, not Celia Cruz), and it’s a breezy listen. He’s a very relaxed performer, and I could see soap fans swooning over this dude. I think a lot of these are covers (Marty Balin’s “Hearts” for sure (which he does a pretty good job on), and Timmy T’s “One More Try”), but good luck finding out much about this record on the internet.

Moss’ old band mate Peter Beckett has only released one album as a solo artist, 1991’s “Beckett”. The album is a pop singer’s idea of what a rock record should sound like: lots of screeching guitars, booming vocals, very little nuance. But I liked it. It’s soooo 1991, and I quickly found myself spontaneously bobbing my head back and forth. These tunes wouldn’t be out of place on a playlist with fellow ‘70s icons like John Waite and Lou Gramm, and that’s not bad company at all.

A third band member, J.C. Crowley, released one country album in 1988 and had a few minor hits, but it’s not on Spotify or Amazon. There are a few songs on YouTube, and I might like them more than Beckett’s record, especially “I Know What I Got”, which is a real toe tapper. After that, he focussed on writing for other artists.

Player still existed as a band into the mid 2010s, though it was just Moss, Beckett and an ever-changing cast of supporting players. They performed on two tours that I absolutely wish I’d been aware of when they happened: Sail Rock 2013, with Christopher Cross, Al Stewart and Robbie Dupree among others on the bill, and Rock the Yacht 2015, which also included Little River Band and Ambrosia. It looks like the partnership finally ended in 2018 following a legal dispute, though the band’s Wikipedia page is vague enough about this to suggest they could still work together again.

And what about “Baby Come Back”? Though an outlier in terms of sound, it fit squarely within the RSO ethos of catchy hooks and great production values. Beckett thought their sound was R&B pop, but if that’s true, it’s the lamest R&B you’ve ever heard. No, this falls squarely in the post-facto yacht rock genre, and that is not a pejorative: any grouping that includes Steely Dan, Pablo Cruise, Seals & Croft and Boz Skaggs is the kind of team I want to support. It’s jazzy without the danger, rock without the volume. And, for a song I think I know pretty well by now, it still has the power to surprise me: I never really appreciated the low-key shredding going on in the song’s last minute. It’s the musical equivalent of being encased in bubble wrap: you feel safe and protected while it plays. But maybe that’s true of all the music we loved in our youth.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #36

Rick Springfield – Jessie’s Girl

I’ve always thought that “13 Going on 30” had a Rick Springfield problem.

If you know the movie (and if you don’t, then shame on you), 13-year-old Jenna is a big Springfield fan. I, too, had been a fan, but by 1987, when the “13” part of the movie is set, Rick’s time at the top of the charts was long past. He hadn’t released an album since 1985, and his last single had peaked at #22. Jenna would have been 7 when he was at his peak, and 11 when he last mattered. I know that first musical loves hit hard, but I have been the father to two 13-year-old girls, and I am fairly certain that they would have moved on if someone disappeared from their sights for two years. Surely, Jenna was more likely to be listening to Debbie Gibson or Tiffany (two #1 singles that year) or Glenn Medeiros or some other pop icon that you may have forgotten but that burned brightly back then. 1987 Rick Springfield was also 38 years old. Ick.

I’m pretty certain this is because of the lag time between when the script was written and when the movie actually came out. If, say, the script was written in 2001, that would have made Jenna 13 in 1984, the year of “Hard to Hold”, when film stardom was still a possibility for our hero. You also see this problem with the reference to “Thriller”, which was not a song that a lot of people cared about in 1987; by then, we were all listening to “Bad”. But “Thriller” – and it’s video – played a fairly central role in advancing the film’s plot, so factual logic be damned.

None of this is meant to condemn the movie, which I love. Anyone who comes out of it not adoring Jennifer Garner is dead inside. Judy Greer, who has to be a lovely person to keep getting so much work, creates a first class bitch in Jenna’s best frenemy. Andy Serkis shows he’s capable of much more than motion capture, and Mark Ruffalo makes for a charming romantic lead. It’s also got some neat actors in smaller parts. Brie Larson plays one of the teen bad girls. The actor playing the younger version of Ruffalo’s character grew up to become the sort of cool sax playing Johnny Atkins on “The Goldbergs” (and is brother to the guy who played Ryan Reynolds’ horny kid brother in “Just Friends”). And, finally, Jim Gaffigan shows the unfortunate mess (sorry, Jim!) that your teen crush might turn into.

The song, as would appear obvious from the opening lines, is about the narrator’s attraction to his pal Jessie’s new girlfriend. Yet, one of the more amazing things about the song’s pop culture afterlife is the theory that the narrator is actually in love with Jessie (somehow misheard through a sort of wishful thinking as “I wish that I was Jessie’s girl”), and sees the woman as a barrier to that. It’s the sort of thing that would never occur to most of us, but, once pointed out, is hard to ignore. I can find no reason to believe that was Springfield’s intention, but it is odd how vague the object of his affection is as compared to the friend he envies – she doesn’t even have a name. 

There are a lot of cover versions, most of which are too faithful to the original to be worth anyone’s time. Craig Robinson’s version from “Hot Tub Time Machine” is fun because, well, it’s Craig Robinson, so of course it is. Matt the Electrician does a folky version that would confuse you in that “How do I know this?” way if you encountered it accidentally in nature (the way I felt when the acoustic version of “Take On Me” turned up in “Deadpool 2”). Mary Lambert strips it down to just piano, turning it into a torch song, but my absolute favourite is from Tate Logan and Zachary Ross and the Divine, who give it a pop punk spin that shows the true emo roots of the song. (What could be more emo than pining for another dude’s lady?) It even has a sequel, which is a decent tune in its own right.

But this is supposed to be about the original, and Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” rules. What’s less clear is why that is so. It certainly wasn’t an obvious hit at the time – it wasn’t even the first single off “Working Class Dog”. It’s a fun song, but as catchy as it is, no one would ever mistake it for an objectively great song, which becomes clearer on repeat listens. It opens with some fairly simple strumming, then Springfield comes in singing, all fey and breathy. Even after the song revs up, it feels confused, like it wants to be a rock song but knows it’s too insubstantial for that. There’s fuzzy guitar on the verses and then tinny on the chorus, and the obligatory solo (which absolutely no one is playing air guitar to) feels like Rick wanting to prove he’s more than another pretty boy who can sing.

And yet, “Jessie’s Girl” can’t be ignored – that opening guitar is immediately recognizable and can transport you to the early 1980s. I have no recall of loving this in 1981, yet I must have: when I got a new cassette player in June 1982, two of my earliest purchases were “Working Class Dog” and its follow up “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet”. He was so big at the time that we talked about his songs like any other important artist: I remember a friend having a theory about the meaning of a lyric from “What Kind of Fool Am I”. We knew that the dog on his album covers was named Ron. And it attained ultimate cultural relevance by showing by in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, with stoned Alfred Molina singing along. The now 73-year-old Springfield is still playing his ass off (and looking pretty fine doing it), and the song has never really left the airwaves, or stopped making new fans: on TikTok there is a clip of Harry Styles from 2012 saying it’s the song that gets him and Zayn Malik pumped up before a gig, and they were still doing a little dance routine to it two years later. Teen idols, separated by more than 30 years, but connected by a song. Maybe it’s not so odd after all that Jenna still loved him in 1987.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #35

The Outfield – Your Love

From September 1984 to the spring of 1986, my main source of new music – and primary viewing pleasure – was MuchMusic, Canada’s only 24-hour music video channel. That was sort of a lie – they initially had eight hours of programming that was then repeated twice – but in that lie was also the knowledge that if they played, say, “Like A Virgin” at 1:38 p.m., you could safely tune in at 9:38 that night and 5:38 the next morning for another Madonna fix.

That all came to an end in the spring of 1986 when I began renting a room in the home of a lovely lady in her 90s who was known to all in her circle (regardless of actual blood affiliation) as Granny. Granny controlled the television with occasional jokey (though I never tested this) threats of lethal force, as I had enough problems right then without adding “fistfight with a near-centenarian” to the list. Granny had her shows (I wish I could say for certain that “Murder, She Wrote” was one of them, but let’s just agree that it was) and I could either watch with her or do something else. The one concession was that I convinced her to check out “ALF” when it debuted in September 1986, and it soon became our weekly ritual to watch together, even past the point when I had tired of the show, because it seemed to make Granny happy to do this one small thing together.

Because I no longer had a television or reasonable access to someone else’s, I rarely saw music videos between May 1986 and spring 1990, when I moved in with my then-girlfriend and her Panasonic. As a result, I had no awareness of the video representations of most of my favourite songs of that era (and still don’t, really) unless they became ubiquitous in the culture, like Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”. Which meant that when I finally watched the video for The Outfield’s “Your Love”, more than 37 years after its release, I was, umm, a little confused.

I have been hooked on “Your Love” since I first heard it in early 1986, so I don’t know why I missed the video initially. I bought the album on cassette and regularly listened to the entire thing – it’s just one pop gem after another. The lyrics to “Your Love” always seemed pretty straightforward to me: the narrator’s girlfriend Josie is out of town and he’s hooking up with his slightly older and very secret side piece who he’s more attached to than he’s prepared to admit. But there are other theories. That Josie is the older girl, and he’s hooking up with someone too young for him. (Creepy.) That Josie is a man and he’s sneaking around with his friend’s gal. (Plausible – though there aren’t a lot of male Josies.) Who expected such worlds of possibility in a humble pop song?

But that video? There is some conceptual weirdness going on here. Why is the woman painting the album cover during the video shoot? Is she supposed to be drawing inspiration from being with the band? There is a sort of flirtation with chipmunk-cheeked frontman Tony Lewis and then that out of left field check in from guitarist John Spinks (R.I.P. to both men), but it’s also clear she isn’t even looking in their direction while they perform, despite some shots through the glass she is painting on that suggest otherwise. And do Spinks and his fellow guitar player think they’re in a different band? A power stance? This isn’t metal, fellows: it barely qualifies as rock. And just a style question: is there a rule somewhere that blind keyboard players have to wear shades? (See Milsap, Ronnie, and Charles, Ray, and Wonder, Stevie, and – oh, you get the point.) Then there is the paint dripping down the screen, suggesting a connection between the song and the painting that doesn’t really exist. And, finally, she just ups and starts to leave halfway through the song. Sorry, boys – at least you’re going to get a pretty cool album cover out of it.

“Your Love” isn’t exactly unique: the strain to connect the visuals to the song was a constant in that era, though considering that this song actually tells a story, the effort really should’ve been saved for some other tune. And let’s face it: some bands are just meant to be heard and not seen, and the era when videos were the key promotional device threw that reality out of whack. I’m not saying The Outfield were such a band, but not everyone could fit as smoothly into that box as, say, Huey Lewis & the News, with their strong-jawed but obviously goofy frontman and his super cool and very game band mates.

In the end, though, it’s the song that perseveres. It’s a fantastic power pop record, a little more new wave influenced perhaps than others of that ilk, and with a great opening guitar hook that draws you in (and different hooks later that keep you listening – the guitar has three different motifs by my count, which come and go throughout). There’s an echoey effect to the whole song, and I’ve always loved the drums, which have a subtle boom that serves as a nice counterpoint to the texture of Lewis’ voice (which I like best when he goes low about a third of the way through) and the shift to more tinny guitar in parts (and the song doesn’t really kick into gear until drummer Alan Jackman shows up 29 seconds in). It’s a song that doesn’t overstay its welcome, a mere 3:36 of boy meets girl/boy cheats on girl with another girl or on his best friend with girl/boy feels deep regret and shame but knows he’s going to do the whole thing all over again the first chance he gets. You know: a pop song.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #34

Gazebo – I Like Chopin

I don’t think I’ve ever given up on a friend (even when I probably should have), but I know for certain that at least three friends gave up on me. Two of them had good reasons: Chris got tired of me cancelling plans with her after I got a new girlfriend, and Shelley got tired of waiting for me to figure out whether I wanted to be a Jehovah’s Witness or not (I did not). The third friend was Serge, and he gave up on me because of Shelley, and that was just wrong, though I completely understand now where he was coming from.

I met Serge in September 1982 when I started university, and he was sort of a larger than life figure. He was a week late to school that year, and I heard stories about him (mostly from one source) throughout frosh week, finally meeting him when we both drunkenly staggered into the same corridor of our residence while looking for something to eat. We quickly became friends, and he was yet another in my rapidly growing collection of slightly older comrades who had a driver’s licence (which I avoided getting until I was 43) and a car (ditto). By the summer of 1984, he had graduated and I had dropped out, and we were housemates and coworkers in the university’s cafeteria.

Serge and I fell out when he and Shelley broke up and I completely misunderstood the bro code that demanded that she now be persona non grata or else I was betraying our friendship. Weirdly, our other friends also behaved as I did, but I was the only one deemed to have betrayed him. People with broken hearts are not logical.

In any event, at some point during our friendship, which ended on a crisp Saturday night in the fall of 1984 at the main bus stop on the Brock University campus, Serge bought Gazebo’s self-titled album on vinyl. He bought it for just the one song (the whole album is pretty good, though), and he was eager to play it for his friends. The first time I heard “I Like Chopin”, I fell in love. But after the falling out, I knew that if I wanted to listen to it again, I needed to find my own copy.

If you’ve never heard this song before, you are not alone: it was never close to being a hit in Canada or the United States (though it went to #1 all over Europe). The odds of me finding the album without serious effort were low. And yet, I did exactly that: I walked into a chain record store, went to “G” in the cassette section, and there it was. I didn’t even have to travel to Toronto: it was right there in St. Catharines, a city hardly at the forefront of contemporary ItaloDisco sounds. At the checkout, the clerk approved of my selection. I felt like Gazebo fandom was some sort of secret club that I had unexpectedly stumbled into, blinking in wonder. What I later learned – and I don’t know if this is actually true – is that demand for “I Like Chopin” was linked to its periodic plays on CFNY (a.k.a. “The Spirit of Radio” for all the Rush fans). Whenever the station aired it, even years later, there would be calls asking what that song was. 

What it was, and is, is a synth pop wonder, and I always pick the extended 7-minutes plus version for the full effect. It may not be for everyone, but I’m yet to meet anyone who knows the song and doesn’t love it. (Okay, there’s just one other person, but, as you’ll see, that’s a pretty critical vote.) It’s about love and longing, a melancholy song of rainy days and a lot of other cheesy abstractions that are sort of beside the point when you’re in love. The piano (an original melody, not lifted from Chopin) is the centrepiece, a delicate backdrop between rounds of glittery synth and snare-shot drum machine. It has a mysterious feel in parts, like the score to a chase scene from an espionage B movie set in some pre-Gorbachev Eastern Bloc country. It feels sad and cheerful all at once, and there is a hypnotic energy that draws you in. I sometimes play it back-to-back-to-back, 23 minutes plus on repeat, and it never fails to please me, even almost 40 years later.

Serge and I never really made up, though his anger subsided enough that we could at least exchange a few non-hostile words from time to time before we moved to new homes in May 1985. My Gazebo cassette was played less often as time passed, and eventually it was gone from my collection and never replaced. I don’t remember when I found out that my wife loved “I Like Chopin”, but if we weren’t married yet, I should have proposed on the spot. It’s the only ItaloDisco record I’ve ever owned, and there is no way that my soulmate also loving the song could be a coincidence. I often feel something akin to fate about how we came to be together, and it makes sense that “I Like Chopin”, and the odd twists of my love for it, would find its small place in that story.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #33

Bee Gees – Fanny (Be Tender with My Love)

On the landing page for this site is a photo of three all-time favourites – Prince, Elvis Costello and Billy Joel – but it could just as easily have been a photo of the three brothers Gibb. For while those artists have fallen in and out of favour – Prince released some barely listenable records, Costello’s “North” will have you looking for synonyms for “dull”, and Joel could deliver a dozen songs like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and still not clear the unforgivable stench of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” – I have never not loved the Bee Gees, or at least the version that I grew up to. Even when much of the world abandoned them in the alleged disco backlash of 1979, I kept playing all my “Saturday Night Fever” 45s, and even the less pleasing tracks on “Spirits Having Flown” went unskipped.

Picking a favourite Bee Gees song was a no-brainer, which is sort of amazing since I could probably start singing without any hesitation about two dozen of them, and that’s without including Bee Gees-adjacent tunes from little brother Andy and folks like Samantha Sang and Frankie Valli. Bob Stanley raved about their songwriting chops in his magnificent book “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé”, and their insane versatility in that area is what made them stars again after every dip in their fortunes as a band. Add the unmistakable harmonies, and you have something undeniable.

Now, my wife may disagree with this choice. For all our years together, she’s been entertained by my response to “Nights on Broadway” whenever it pops up in a playlist. I have an almost physical reaction: my cares lighten, a smile etches itself onto my heart, my vocal cords soften, and then I am howling away like the poppiest pop diva. It is by far my favourite of their songs to sing along to. 

And yet, it is “Fanny” that moves me most, in part because it is probably the ballsiest song they ever recorded. I am a sucker for big epic statements in music, for rock songs that are operatic in scope and in the emotions they convey. For songs that start out gentle and build to an insane intensity that almost makes your heart explode out of your chest. For songs that are so complex in their structure that to perform them as recorded is nearly impossible in a live setting. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Fanny (Be Tender with My Love)”, which meets all of these criteria yet is somehow even more than that.

“Fanny” is a song about love, but, as the title makes clear, there’s a lot of trepidation on the narrator’s part about what this love might do to him. It opens with a relaxed tempo, with tinkling keyboards, slightly throbbing guitar and delicate piano bar drums. The intensity rises with the layered voices of the first chorus, then again with the roar of frustration in the second verse of “Do you think I’m gonna stand here / All night in the rain?” It’s a nice song, but it’s from 1:55 to 2:15, in the section ending “You made a promise / You’ll always love me forever”, that you first sense (1) how truly fucked this guy is and (2) you might just be listening to something great.

After another chorus, more intense than the last, voices overlapping in a barely controlled cacophony, the song reaches at 2:55 what could be its natural endpoint. There’s nothing more to say about Fanny, and you could fade out with a few more lines of the chorus and be proud of the work you put in. But there’s more than a minute left, and what a minute it is. From 2:55 to 3:10, the drums pick up and the brothers “ooh” and “aah” and almost howl before Barry comes out for one more chorus on absolute fire, displaying all the vulnerability and terror that lies at the heart of giving yourself to another person so completely, the existential “oh, fuck, what have I gotten myself into?” that every last one of us, if we’ve been lucky, has experienced at least once. Having released that pain, his energy finally depleted, the song fades out, into history.

So, maybe too much weight for a pop song? Hell, no. Music at its best triggers an emotional response, and I can listen to “Fanny” again and again and never not feel that same thrill over the last minute or so. It’s a work of studio wizardry – the brothers never played it live because it was impossible to recreate what they had done – but it isn’t clinical like so much manufactured music because the technology is warm, not cold: the genius isn’t the manipulation of a Pro Tools-wielding producer demigod, but of professional musicians committed to making something timeless and using the tech to enhance their talent, not as a substitute for it. It’s another song that I want played at my funeral (that’s going to be a kickass playlist – too bad I’ll have to miss it), and I hope people start singing along. It’s sort of impossible to resist.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #32

Phil Collins – In the Air Tonight

If you set yourself the task of revisiting your past, musical or otherwise, you are soon going to find yourself writing about a lot of dead people. I don’t think that’s an inherently sad enterprise, as much as I still find myself surprised by all those who are gone who once shone brightly in my days.

It was Doug Maxwell who first played “In the Air Tonight” for me, and he did it in the worst way possible. Before the needle dropped, he told me I was going to be blown away. Never do that to someone. First, it’s a song – keep expectations realistic. It’s also a lot of pressure. What if I’m not blown away? Am I somehow lacking as a result?

I had really crappy music players when I was a kid. First, there was a record player with a tiny speaker in the front, then a proper stereo with detached speakers that was still about 95% cheap plastic. I don’t recall our home ever having an 8-track system, and our cassette player was also low tech. My high school graduation present from my parents was a higher end boombox-type cassette player/radio that gave me my first glimpse of personal hi-fidelity. Up until then, sound quality was something experienced only at friends’ homes.

Doug had a great system. I could not begin to tell you a single thing about it because I just wasn’t paying attention. For all my love of music, sound quality has never been a big priority for me, which might explain my love for jangly guitar rock, the low-effort instinct of punk, and bedroom pop: a great hook is a great hook and a clever lyric still resonates no matter how cruddy it sounds. It could be that because I fell in love with music in a cruddy sonic environment, I developed an ear for hearing what really mattered in a record, since that’s all I could get from it. Music is completely democratic: you just need will, creativity and something to make a sound with. You don’t even need money: your voice is enough of an instrument, and you can set a beat by tapping on, well, anything. What happens after that is mostly out of your control, but you’re still making music, and that DIY aesthetic has long found a home in my ears.

Thankfully, I was blown away by “In the Air Tonight”, though it was never a tune that made it into heavy rotation for me, likely because it really is one of those songs that benefits immensely from being played on a great sound system. It’s all gloomy atmospherics, and sounds like it’s being sung underwater, or at least in an empty swimming pool. No wonder the “Miami Vice” producers were attracted to it: it’s pure feeling distilled into sound (it was from Phil’s divorce album, after all, and divorce is very much about feeling powerless and incapable of expressing how you feel without devolving into histrionics). It’s an incredibly bitter song – “Well, if you told me you were drowning / I would not lend a hand” is an all-time Top 10 “fuck you” – and there is a tension, an edginess, that never relents.

But what makes this song legendary is the drum solo, and everything that comes after that. If you watch the official music video (Speaking of democratic, remember when pop stars could look like the guy who fixes your broken household items?), you can tell the director had no idea what a weapon he had at his disposal in that oh-so-brief drum solo. The song changes after Phil lets rip at 3:41 for a mere three seconds of “holy fuck, what was that?” bloodletting as all his anxiety and fear and anger are taken out on his kit. And though the tempo doesn’t really change, it somehow feels more urgent, with the drum a constant throbbing presence until the end. And that end takes forever to come: it has the longest fade-out in my experience, with a noticeable volume change 52 seconds before the song ends. And Phil is at full howl for all of it, a Janovian rant against the wilds.

Doug passed away less than a year ago, far too fucking early as usual. He had a big personality in a small form, and was one of many music-loving friends that I, coincidentally, surrounded myself with during those years of growth. He was also one of too many friends who I mostly lost touch with over the years. It happens: life’s journey is, hopefully, a long and varied one, and it’s foolish to think that the people who mattered most to you at 17 will still be on the ride with you when it comes to a stop. And yet, once again, I feel sad about it. It might be that drifting apart is the best way for a friendship to end: the happy memories aren’t tinged by the less happy stuff that came after. With Doug, I have a lot of musical memories: “Elvira”, “Jumping Jack Flash” and the still-to-be-told “Can’t You See” prom night tale. It’s nice that they aren’t befouled by an argument over something like Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie”. Wouldn’t that be awful?

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #31

Michael Johnson – Bluer Than Blue

One of my closest friends growing up was Kirk Boutilier. We were distant cousins on my mother’s side, but never knew that until we were adults and the day of my first marriage put Kirk in a room with my grandmother, who connected the dots between his arm of the clan and mine. Kirk could always make me laugh, and he had (at least in my eyes) a sort of effortless-appearing cool. Kirk could get me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise have done just by suggesting them, like trick-or-treating in drag when we were 15. I expect he never did anything like that again (I can’t make the same claim): a dress and wig made him into his mother’s doppelgänger, which was commented on at pretty much every door we knocked on.

Robert Barrie was my main music-loving friend, and still is to this day, but Kirk lived just up the road from my house while Robert was a car ride away. So it was with Kirk that I would sometimes play my records, although neither of our dads was particularly fun to be around so it didn’t happen a lot. We would bounce around to The Cars’ “Just What I Needed”, make up silly alternate lyrics to songs like Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana (At the Copa)”, practise our falsettos to Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” and our air sax to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”, and channel our inner musical theatre nerds to “Grease”.

I owned all those records on 45, and tons more. I always played the “B” sides, and found some great tunes that way. But I never read the songwriting credits on either side of the record with any sense of purpose, so I missed out on the fact that, in 1978, I owned three discs where the “A” side was written by the same guy. Randy Goodrum was the pop genius who composed Anne Murray’s #1 “You Needed Me” (likely bought by my mother then merged into my collection), Gene Cotton’s Top 20 “Before My Heart Finds Out” and, my personal favourite, Michael Johnson’s Canadian Top 10 “Bluer Than Blue”. 

Kirk called “Bluer Than Blue” the most romantic song of all time. He was being sarcastic, but I wonder now if he wasn’t accidentally right. Having been through a few painful breakups, I have a new perspective on this song. The verses are full of positivity, as the narrator talks about all the things he’ll be able to get done once this woman is out of his life. He can watch his favourite TV shows, get more sleep, have all-night parties (not sure how those last two are supposed to work together), read more. Things are looking good. But the truth comes out in the chorus: he’s actually devastated by the end of the relationship, and life without her is going to be, yes, bluer than blue.

It opens with a melancholy piano, followed by rising strings, and that’s pretty much the song, with some low-key guitar, a gentle but steady backbeat on the chorus and an occasional mild drum flourish. Johnson begins with a matter-of-fact recitation of his future single life, but his voice starts to change halfway through the verse, and the sadness comes through in the chorus. He regains control for the next verse, but there’s a bit of a quiver, and then we’re back to his misery in the chorus. It’s an uncomplicated vocal for an uncomplicated pop song, but it’s amazingly affecting, and I get chills in places. Just a lovely way to spend 2:59.

Goodrum had broken through as a songwriter in 1977 with England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “It’s Sad to Belong” (yep, I owned that one, too), and he’s still at it, though 1978 was probably his commercial peak. Of his future compositions, I remember DeBarge’s sweetly sad “Who’s Holding Donna Now”, and have mad love for the cheesefest that is Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie”. Johnson, who passed away in 2017, had another minor pop hit in 1979 before moving on to a run of country hits in the late 1980s, and was releasing new music up to 2012.

My friendship with Kirk abated some as we charted different courses on reaching high school, reconnecting when we worked together for a summer at 19, then again at our 10-year high school reunion at 28. That one lasted a few years until the inevitable drift apart brought about by (1) distance and (2) us being men. Contact had been infrequent over the years when I learned of his terminal illness, and then, before we could reconnect once more, he was gone, only 52. I don’t look on this as a missed opportunity: our friendship was firmly in both our rear view mirrors, and he had people he loved and who loved him in the now that needed his focus, not some ghost from his past. But I miss him, of course, in a way I couldn’t when he was still alive and there was a chance that we would have one more run as close friends. He’s another of those people and moments who become alive to me again through music. To paraphrase Rick Blaine, we’ll always have “Bluer Than Blue”. I think Kirk would smile at that. I certainly do.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #30

Donna Summer – Dim All the Lights

I will never not be annoyed by people who make mistakes when writing about Disco Demolition Night. It happened again recently in a most unexpected place: an article about 1970s hockey superstar Guy Lafleur (who, I shit you not, put out a disco record in 1979).

To recap: in 1979, either Steve Dahl, a dumbass disc jockey from Chicago, or his handlers convinced Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who never missed out on a chance at pulling off an oddball promotional stunt (see Gaedel, Eddie if you doubt me), to let him blow up a bunch of disco records between games of a baseball double header at Comiskey Park on July 12. The results were predictable to anyone with the first clue about explosions and human behaviour: the field was left a mess and the fans ran wild, leading to the second game being cancelled and Veeck’s White Sox having to forfeit.

What always annoys me is the idea that this event arose out of some sort of populist revolt against disco for taking over our radio airwaves. There is no doubt disco was running out of steam, as all massively popular cultural movements inevitably do, usually from a mix of consumer fatigue and the appeal of the new. But it was still immensely popular in 1979. Other than two ballads and the soft rock of the Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes”, every Billboard number one song so far that year had been a disco or disco-adjacent tune. At the very moment fans were streaming into Comiskey, Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” was atop the charts. It would be followed by a five-week run from Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” before The Knack took control of the charts, and soon faced their own backlash. Clearly, disco wasn’t the problem – idiots were.

And those idiots? A lot of racists, most likely. Fans showed up at the game with records by such artists as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Definitely not disco. But Black, which a lot of White folks either seemed to think made them disco, or they just didn’t care about the reason for the protest, just its target. (Homophobia likely played a part as well.)

But let’s talk about Donna Summer. I owned a few disco albums (and a lot of singles), but Summer’s “Bad Girls” is the only album that I played repeatedly when it came out and still enjoy listening to today. It’s unfair to call a lot of this disco: there’s soul and pop and rock and something called hi-NRG and a bunch of other stuff, and all of it is lethal. I particularly love the banner along the bottom of the front jacket cover: “Over 70 minutes of music”. The volume isn’t that big of a deal in the oversized streaming age: it’s that every one of those 71 (to be exact) minutes earns its place, unlike the often unlistenable bloat of something like Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy”.

Though not the biggest hit, “Dim All the Lights” was, even then, my favourite of the album’s singles. It doesn’t turn up much on playlists, which is too bad, because it is still great. It’s a song about sex, of course (“You can use me all up / Take me bottom to top” and “Turn my brown body white” – how did that line get onto 1979 radio?), but there are also old-fashioned notions of love and commitment, with the reference to a Victrola a lovely signalling device. It starts out sultry and languid, a slow jam before such things had a name, but with a buzzing energy underneath and a vocal from Donna that lets you know this won’t be a ballad. She draws you in, then, as the disco beat kicks up, holds a note for an impossibly long time. After that, it’s just breathless, the beat never letting up, with even the changes hanging onto the thumping backdrop. It’s a song built for extended forays to the dance floor, and there has got to be a great 12-minute remix out there somewhere. (There is an official seven-minute version that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to understand what makes the song great.) I particularly love the little bits that sound like a worn-out steel drum during the instrumental break from 2:49 to 3:21. And after the processed vocals that follow that break, it’s chilling when Donna’s pure voice kicks in again at 3:54, and takes you home (blending into “Journey to the Centre of Your Heart” on the album).

So, yes, I love this song, and the whole album. It was Summer’s peak, commercially and artistically, and although she didn’t have a pop hit after 1989, she continued to top the dance charts regularly almost up to her passing in 2012. Even now, this music seems fresh and timeless, and I am happy to get into the trenches with anyone dumb enough to try and argue that all disco was intended to be disposable. Although it was much maligned in its time, there were genuine artists working in the genre, with all-time great albums from the likes of Chic, and even better singles, like Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. Of course, there were hacks just churning out records to fit demand, but every genre has its version of Stock, Aitken & Waterman. I was too young to participate in the disco era, but I’m pretty sure I can conjure what it must have felt like to be a young urban adult in 1977 by cranking up “I Feel Love” and letting the beat take over. That’s art, my friends.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #29

New Order – “True Faith”

In the mid 1980s, the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night in St. Catharines, Ontario (should fate have marooned you there) was Club Henley. It was a dark cavernous space completely without any artistically meritorious design elements, but it was easily accessible, could hold a lot of people, and never, to my knowledge, turned anyone away at the door for lack of space.

It was also where I found myself in March 1985 at the end of a labour dispute that had stopped beer distribution in Ontario. Club Henley’s owners had crossed the U.S.-Canada border and stocked up on Genesee, which was pretty awful but (marginally) better than nothing at all. Late in the evening, word came that the strike was at an end, and good ol’ Canadian beer would be flowing again in a few days. Knowing they would never be able to sell the Genesee once a better option was available, the bar announced at around 11:00 p.m. that it was now going for half price, and then, at last call at 12:45 a.m., took the bold step of violating a few laws by telling us that “no one goes home until the Genny is gone!” The roar of approval was overstated, since it only took another hour to finish off what was left, but it was still a pretty awesome night.

Club Henley had a large dance floor, which was its biggest selling point for me and my friends, and they played a pretty decent mix of indie and alternative music that was mostly familiar from CFNY in Toronto, with bands like The Cure, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, plus pop hits like Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)”. I remember in particular Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” and Ministry’s “(Every Day Is) Halloween” getting lots of play, and the bar was still popular when Paul Lekakis’ “Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back to My Room)” (what was with all the brackets?) got to number 4 in Canada in June 1987. And, of course, they played a lot of New Order.

Most people weren’t taking New Order too seriously at that time: a guitar rock-loving friend renamed their 1987 double album “Substance” (which I owned on vinyl) by sticking “Lack of” at the beginning. They were a dance band, and generally seen as the lame descendant of the great Joy Division. It wasn’t the fault of New Order’s founding members that Ian Curtis had killed himself, and you certainly couldn’t blame them for pursuing a far less gloomy sound that would distinguish their new band from their old one. But dance music has always been treated as a lesser art by “serious” musicians, which is idiotic, because pretty much everyone loves to dance and helping people do that – while perhaps not as difficult to achieve as moving them to tears – is damned important, and brings a lot of joy into the world. And New Order were masters of that art.

Club Henley, over the 1984 to 1987 period when I was going there, had many New Order songs on its playlist: “Everything’s Gone Green”, “Temptation”, “Blue Monday” (easily the most acclaimed of their tunes), “ The Perfect Kiss”, “Shellshock”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”. I could be wrong about a few of these, but if Club Henley wasn’t playing them, they were definitely turning up at other bars I frequented in my early 20s. The band was at the top of a particular style of music aimed at a particular demographic at a particular moment in history, which I think is pretty impressive.

But none of those songs were my favourite. My top pick was “True Faith”, and it’s this New Order tune that is on my favourite songs of all-time playlist. Why is that? Well, it makes me want to dance, but then so do the other songs listed above. But, unlike those other songs, the lyrics grabbed hold of me and expressed something I was struggling to make sense of in my own life. I was trying to live in two worlds at the time. On one side were my friends and the life we had, going to bars and generally being fun-seeking young adults. On the other was a spiritual need that was being satisfied in a rather extreme way and in which I was beginning to question the choices I had made that got me there. The title alone made me feel subversive when I played it, given my tenuous footing in a religion that liked to believe it alone possessed the Truth about God and all things faith-related. There’s a pull between a sort of despair in the verses (“Now I fear you’ve left me standing / In a world that’s so demanding”) and a slightly hopeful turn in the chorus (“My morning sun is the drug that brings me near / To the childhood I lost, replaced by fear”). I think the title settles the argument: the narrator is choosing to believe, choosing a hopeful path. I was less confident about my path, and by the time I walked away from the religion, most of my Club Henley era friends had already moved on, tired of waiting for me to decide who I was. I didn’t blame them: I was self aware enough to know I was not always an easy person to be around back then.

So the song is both a declaration of my liberation from (self-imposed) religious tyranny, but also a reminder of what I lost. That I almost always forget the sad part and just start bouncing around is a measure of its power. All music can take us back through time, and as I write this, the sad part is what I’m feeling, but I’m remembering the happy part, too, the part where I’m sweaty and singing along at the top of my lungs and carrying way too much alcohol in my veins and just being 21 or 22 and feeling like the night is never going to end and that the friends who I love (and, of course, never said that to) are the best friends anyone could ever have. And I was right. And so were you at your own Club Henley dancing to your own version of “True Faith”. I hope you managed it better than I did.