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.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #28

John Lennon – “(Just Like) Starting Over”

From December 5 to 7, 1980, I had what was to that point probably the best weekend of my young life. The following day, December 8, John Lennon was murdered. The two events, of course, had nothing to do with each other (as far as I know, anyway), but their temporal relationship has always meant that I don’t think of one without the other.

Let’s start with Lennon. The Beatles were my first band, so I naturally loved John. But he was barely on my listening radar in the late 1970s while Paul McCartney still churned out hit after hit, so I by default fell on the Paul side of that particular dispute. John hadn’t had a hit single in over half a decade when “(Just Like) Starting Over” was released in late October 1980, and while it was doing well in the United States, it seemed like his recent fallow stretch was going to continue north of the 49th parallel: the song wasn’t even on RPM’s national chart when it came out on December 6. That quickly changed: it debuted at number 28 a week later, then hit number 1 on December 20. That momentum continued into the new year, and it ended up as the biggest song in Canada for 1981.

So, what was I up to that was so great that first weekend of December?

A regular part of my childhood Saturday evenings was watching “Reach for the Top”, a national quiz show that matched teams of four high schoolers in a battle to prove who knew the most stuff. I had always loved trivia – I was an incessant dabbler in “The World Almanac” with its lists of highest mountains and Olympic gold medalists, and by 1980 owned the first two editions of both “The Book of Lists” and the endlessly fascinating “The People’s Almanac” (which I still have, their condition evidence of heavy use) – so getting onto my high school’s “Reach” team was a life goal. Schools in Nova Scotia only competed every second year, so my Grade 11 year of 1980-81 was my one shot, and I made it. We had a magnificent and balanced team, with Sandy Nicholson, Nelson Rice and Doug Campbell joining me, and it could be intimidating to be around such smart people. I was beginning to understand that maybe this was my tribe.

The fun started on the night of December 5 when, after getting set up in our hotel following a long drive to Halifax, my uncle picked me up and brought me back to his apartment, where I ate pizza, played with his infant daughter, watched American sitcoms on channels I didn’t have access to at home and, yeah, after his wife arrived and said child was put to bed, smoked black hash out of a bong he made using a toilet paper core and some tinfoil. Good times.

Anyway, even with my less than stellar contribution, on December 6 we won our first two games (including a particularly satisfying defeat of a private school in their matching outfits whose number included a boy who less than two years later was in a New Jersey jail for his role in the murder of a classmate’s parents), and our teacher chaperones, two lovely women named Pat, got permission from our principal to take us out for a fancy celebratory dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Zapata’s. I doubt said permission included alcohol, but a pitcher of sangria was ordered, and, in a misjudgment that could have had disastrous consequences with a less law-abiding group of boys, we cajoled them into ordering a second. Left to our own devices the rest of the evening, we retired to the poolroom, where we would alternate between heating up in the sauna then racing to dive into the pool before our body temperatures dropped. Another school who had lost earlier that day were in the same hotel, and we hung out with them a bit, failing to make any headway with two pretty girls that were in their number. After the pool closed, we watched “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in one of our rooms, then crashed, getting up the next morning to take care of business and earn our spot in the final round. Somewhere along the way, I bought Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano”. A magnificent weekend.

Two days later, I was among the tens of millions watching tribute after tribute to Lennon on television, where it seemed to own every channel the night of December 9. And “(Just Like) Starting Over”, a song that I already liked but hadn’t given a heck of a lot of thought to, was soon everywhere, the tragedy a grimly ironic thumb in the eye to Lennon’s positivity about new beginnings.

It is a song out of time, more at home in the 1950s than 1980, which may explain the rather muted response initially: post-punk and post-disco, music was trying to look ahead to the next big thing, and not to a relic from the 1960s drawing inspiration from a decade before that. Light taps on a triangle, gently strummed guitar, then a heavenly chorus of “ooooo” and “aaaah”, followed by a vocal that I’ve always thought of as John’s attempt to resurrect Elvis Presley, as, again, a 1950s piano bangs away while a stubbornly subtle bass line rolls along underneath, with drums that sound at times like handclaps. The lyrics are a mature declaration of love to a partner who has been with him through much, and the hope of more to come. It’s far more honest and romantic than the more traditional dreck of “Woman” that followed later on the same album, and whatever you think of Yoko Ono (as time passes, I am more and more impressed by her), you can’t deny John’s love for her. The song is blissfully sunny without being Pollyannaish, and not many of those can get you on the dance floor, too. Pretty damned impressive.

Our return trip to Halifax for the final round a few months later was far less fun – the Pats had learned better. And, as it turned out, having four really smart guys was not enough against the buzzsaw that was Hans Budgey, who ran the table in the rapid-fire last two minutes of the title game to turn a close match into a blowout. Hans and company went on to win the national championship, and no one will ever convince me (and I defy them to try) that we weren’t the true national runners up. I still love trivia (yes, I did try to get on “Jeopardy”, which is a good way to learn that maybe you don’t know nearly as much as you think you do), and, over the last year or so, I’ve listened to a lot more of John Lennon’s music. Two days ago, I heard “(Just Like) Starting Over” in a grocery store, and for all the nostalgia in its sound, it remains a fresh and invigorating piece of pop music. I still think Paul won the 1970s, but John was definitely gearing up to take a run at him in the 1980s, which leaves us with one of the great “what if”s of pop music.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #27

John Parr – St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)

I think that the artists and entertainers that we form an attachment to at a critical stage in our lives never stop being important to us. That has to be the case, because it’s the only way I can find to explain my lifelong interest in the career of Andrew McCarthy.

In the 1980s, I saw, relative to the total count of movies I attended and the small tally of those he appeared in, a disproportionate number of films starring McCarthy. “Class”, “Heaven Help Us”, “St. Elmo’s Fire”, “Pretty in Pink”, “Mannequin”, “Weekend at Bernie’s”: for all but the first of these, I laid down a part of my limited cash in exchange for the privilege of watching McCarthy act – sometimes poorly (sorry, Andrew!) – in some often fairly awful but always entertaining films. Why? Because something about McCarthy – or at least the characters he played – appealed to me. He seemed like an outsider to the Brat Pack (confirmed in his recent memoir about that era), and therefore more relatable. Who else was a young wanna be novelist going to identify with but the fairly normal looking actor playing a young wanna be novelist saying overwrought things about art and life in a film about trying to get your shit together after university? The rest of the male “St. Elmo’s Fire” cast couldn’t fit that part: Emilio Estevez was too much a try-hard, Judd Nelson was either intimidating (“The Breakfast Club”) or a dick (“St. Elmo’s Fire”), and Rob Lowe was (is!) too painfully beautiful for mere mortals such as I to look to as a model for living. Which left McCarthy.

If you’ve forgotten the film, then you are blessed. My friends and I made fun of it even when we were watching it pretty much every week on First Choice. Since it isn’t on any of the 38 streaming services that I pay for and I didn’t feel like laying out another $4.99 to torture myself, I checked out some of the available clips on YouTube, and it was every bit the overwritten and overacted horror show that I remembered. It’s like Strindberg or Ibsen as interpreted by 12-year-olds, all drama without depth of feeling. There is casual racism (the single minority character of note is a stereotyped Black streetwalker) and a disdainful mockery of outsiders. Maybe accurate for the world of baby yuppies that it purports to show, but hardly a fun day at the movies.

And yet, at 21, I loved it even while knowing what bullshit it was. McCarthy’s Kevin was who I wanted to be. I wanted to be that clever, that attractive (a reachable goal, I thought, before “Pretty in Pink” turned him, ever so briefly, into a heartthrob), and, as he is by the end of the film, a published writer. Plus, I would get to sleep with Ally Sheedy in her super-cute phase. Not a shabby life, really.

I don’t recall where in the film the song shows up, but its synthy pop-rock sound and extremely generic lyrical content don’t match the movie’s vibe at all. That isn’t John Parr’s fault: he hadn’t seen the movie, so co-writer David Foster showed him some video of CanCon superstar Rick Hansen’s world tour via wheelchair for inspiration. The ridiculous music video showing Parr interacting with the actors in character at the burned-out bar that serves as their hangout in the film (their decision to stop going there at the movie’s end is supposed to signal to the viewer that they are now adults) has nothing to do with the film’s narrative. It sounds like a bunch of other songs that were popular in the first half of the 1980s, and somehow – likely thanks to the boost from the movie – jumped past those songs to reach #1. I owned the 45 and played it frequently, finding the overall positivity of the song to be aspirational and inspirational. But before now, I can’t remember the last time I played it with intent. After a few plays, each of which left me with that old pumped-up feeling, I still can’t see it breaking into my nostalgia rotation.

Anyway, despite wanting to model myself on McCarthy’s character, that wasn’t who I was, and Kevin’s future wasn’t my future, or McCarthy’s. And as I have travelled through life, I have periodically checked in to see what McCarthy was up to. His acting career seemed like a wasteland for a long time, but I knew he ended up as a successful television director. His memoir filled in the gaps, including overcoming alcohol addiction and building a second career as a travel writer. He sounds fulfilled, and as surprised as anyone might be about where he ended up. I get that. I learned long ago that writing The Great Canadian Novel was beyond me, but I know, too, that I wouldn’t want that at the price of what I have. You may not get the life you want, but, if you’re lucky, you get the life you need.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #26

Captain & Tennille – Love Will Keep Us Together

From the mid-1970s into the early 1980s, New Year’s Day would always find me doing the same thing. Around noon, I would set myself down next to a radio and spend the remaining half of the day listening as CJCB counted down the top 100 songs of the year just ended. I think they picked it up from a station in Toronto, but it wasn’t CHUM-FM, and whoever was compiling it wasn’t following the RPM chart. It was a critical part of my musical life, a clearing of the deck before the exciting new sounds to come.

The songs were mixed in with little anecdotes and sometimes interview snippets. I learned – and have never forgotten – the story behind “I Don’t Like Mondays”. The announcer told me in 1978 that The Rolling Stones were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. (I had thought it was Kiss.) I also heard – though I’ve never been able to verify that this actually happened – that Al Stewart claimed to make dance music for people with two left feet. My brain is littered with trivia from those long ago January 1s.

The countdown also meant learning that some of the songs I loved best weren’t as widely adored by others, or others that I hated were in fact monster hits. I really disliked Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”, so its place at the top of 1981’s chart befuddled me. (I am so not the same listener I was in my youth – “Bette Davis Eyes” rocks!) There would be a delicious tension as the top 10 were counted down and one mega hit after another fell short of the top spot. I was devastated when the 1976 countdown found my beloved Bay City Rollers and “Saturday Night” falling to Wings’ unquestionably drecky “Silly Love Songs”. The 1977 countdown was the oddest, when a song I’d pretty much already forgotten – Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You” – came out of nowhere to take the top spot.

But in 1975, everything went as the music gods intended. The top song of the year was “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain & Tennille. And I was very okay with that.

1975 seems like a pretty decent year for pop music. There were a lot of songs that hold up well today: “Jive Talkin'” by the Bee Gees. Neil Sedaka (with a helping hand from Elton John) and “Bad Blood”. “Ballroom Blitz”, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, “Nights on Broadway”, “Fame”, “Only Women Bleed”. Not a bad start. But look a little deeper into the top 100 and things get sketchy. There are hits from The Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Paul Anka, Olivia Newton-John, Frankie Valli. There were a lot of lame tracks in heavy rotation that year. And I liked a lot of them.

The lamest of the lame – and therefore champion of that most lame of musical years – was the married team of Captain & Tennille and “Love Will Keep Us Together”. And I loved that song. I don’t think it was my favourite of the year – “Magic” by Pilot had a serious hold on me – but it was up there. Listening to it now, I can’t really make sense of it. The best explanation is that I was probably a pretty lame 11-year-old. I’ll defer further comment to those who remember me from then.

Yet, as I listen to it now, the song starts to get under my skin again, and it really is something of a masterful pop confection. There’s a simple piano hook and weird little fuzzy synth notes that catch your attention, anchored by Toni Tennille’s sweet but potent voice. Neil Sedaka wrote the song, but his version is sluggish and more discrete, missing the energy that Toni brings. It also lacks the Brill Building feel of Neil’s roots, but Captain & Tennille capture that air a bit with their girl-group background singers. The production from Captain Daryl Dragon is smart, putting the vocal front and centre and most instruments lower in the mix, emphasizing the cheery positivity of the song. The tempo change with jangly piano – again, very subtle, a little trick in the back of your brain – when she sings “young and beautiful” picks up the energy just when it starts to become too familiar, and if you don’t get chills every time Toni hits a run of “I will”s, especially the last one, then you just aren’t listening closely enough.

This was Captain & Tennille’s first song to get wide release, and they never flew so high again – who could? – but they remained reliable hit makers for several years, including giving us the delightfully bizarre soft core “Muskrat Love”. Their marriage was long-lasting but not a happy one, yet they remained on friendly terms afterwards, and Toni was at his bedside when Daryl passed in 2019. You can put your own spin on the title of their biggest hit for a line to end this piece.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #25

Peter Frampton – Jumpin’ Jack Flash

So, yeah. Peter Frampton. Let’s start there.

In 1976, for reasons that are not clear in hindsight and probably didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, A & M Records released “Frampton Comes Alive!” The question is why Frampton, after four albums and only modest commercial success, was deemed worthy of the double live album treatment. Clearly, someone at the label was at the top of their game because the record was a true sensation, selling around 10 million copies and producing three hit singles. Buried in all the hype was, at the end of side three, a cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. And though I read the liner notes and knew it was a Rolling Stones song, it may as well have been a Frampton original, because I had never heard the Stones’ version. I don’t know how that could have happened but it did, and that made it – still makes it – a Peter Frampton song for me. (I also never heard “Tumbling Dice” until it showed up on the “FM” soundtrack as a Linda Ronstadt cover in 1978. Someone older than me clearly fell down in not turning me on to the Stones.)

The album still kicks ass, especially the 14:15 long “Do You Feel Like We Do” and the guitar lick at 3:04 and 4:20 of “Something’s Happening”, and Frampton, now in his 70s, remains one of the coolest guys out there. His Twitter feed is a frequent delight, though it helps that we tend to agree on political and social issues.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the crux of this: every teenage boy wants to be a rock star. Okay, maybe a few don’t, but they all have equally preposterous alternate goals. It doesn’t matter if you can’t sing or play an instrument: in your bedroom, you’re a rock ‘n’ roll god. And it never really goes away: even at 58, you can at times find me in my kitchen at 5:00 a.m. supporting Tom Scholz with some wicked air guitar licks on “More Than A Feeling”.

I actually had friends who sort of were rock stars in our community. Robert Barrie and Alan Sutherland were two of my pals in high school, and they played together in a series of bands, even releasing a pretty cool single when we were in Grade 12. (Shout out to “Endlessly” backed with “Coke Avenue”, though I was always a “Kiss Your Picture” guy – you can’t beat a good power ballad.) I haven’t seen Alan in ages, but Robert’s house has always been a guaranteed stop on my rare trips back to Cape Breton. I can’t remember if they were still playing together, but when my rock star moment came, Robert was the one who made it happen.

It was summer, I’m pretty sure 1985. I was back in Cape Breton for a visit, as were some other old friends – definitely Doug Maxwell (R.I.P., you magnificent bastard – BTW, if you don’t get that that was a compliment, I can’t help you), almost certainly Sandy Nicholson, probably Darrell Clark. Robert’s band was playing a charity event and our gang went out to support the cause, of course, but mostly to drink cheap beer, try to win a raffle and see our friend play. Towards the end of the night, Robert called Doug to the stage, and, somehow thinking it was intended for all of us (it really wasn’t), the rest of our group followed, and before I knew it we had become an impromptu backing chorus on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. I learned that night that years of bedroom listens didn’t mean I knew the lyrics very well. I can’t remember what I thought was being sung, but “It’s a gas! Gas! Gas!” was not it.

It’s important to understand that I was born to be a backup singer. I would have made a great Pip, had I but only found my Gladys Knight. I can carry a tune, only sound good as part of a group, and am generally happy just to be included. The synchronized dancing would’ve been a challenge, but we’d have worked it out – it’s not like those guys were channeling James Brown or anyone equally electric. So that night, for the four or five minutes we were on stage, was glorious.

Oh, and Peter’s version? It’s good, but the original is so much better. There is, of course, no shame in that – they’re The Rolling Stones, for god’s sake – and I imagine Frampton would agree. Like all live versions, it seems, it goes on forever – twice the length of the Stones’ original. The original is a true strut song: crisp, with a propulsive backbeat, deep bass notes and a rich chorus. Frampton’s version is slightly sluggish, more plodding – more of a guitar god record than the singer’s showcase of the original – and stretched out for audience interactions.

All of this is part of why I love cover versions: every few years, sometimes longer, a new group of people gets to call a song their own. My “Hurt” is by Johnny Cash, but yours could be Nine Inch Nails’ original. Your “Always on My Mind” could be by Elvis or Willie, while mine is by the Pet Shop Boys. Versions of “Hallelujah” are like Tim Hortons – there’s one for every block in Canada. There’s no right or wrong answer here: it’s whatever makes you fall in love with the song.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #24

Thompson Twins – If You Were Here

I could write a dozen of these about songs from John Hughes’ movies, and I just might by the time I hang up my, uh, . . . keyboard? Or digital pen? Fingers? Anyway, let’s start with this one, the first song – and film – that made me realize that Hughes was a genius at integrating pop music and teen comedy.

This wasn’t a hit, and it wasn’t even released as a single, which is a bit of a surprise, since the non-Twins hit number 3 the same month the film was released with “Hold Me Now” (worthy of its own write up, for sure). It could be record label shenanigans – it was a track from two albums ago, and maybe they didn’t want any focus taken off the current release. Or maybe they thought it wasn’t a worthy single, which is (1) completely stupid and (2) irrelevant. The streaming era has its flaws, but one good thing is that record labels – and artists for that matter – have little say about what becomes a hit. The listener decides which tracks to stream and which to skip, and the charts reflect that. And “If You Were Here” found its audience – it’s one of the band’s most popular tracks on Spotify.

So, no single, so you only heard this song if you were already a fan of the band or saw the movie or bought the soundtrack, which you likely would only have done if you, you know, saw the movie. I don’t remember why I went to see this, but I was already a massive Hughes fan thanks to some of his truly demented writings in National Lampoon during the 1970s. It was summer 1984, and after crashing out of university in spectacular fashion (I think I changed majors four times in five months then just stopped attending classes entirely – yeah, direction I did not have), then wallowing in my failure in Cape Breton for three months (including a horrendous fishing trip on my father’s boat), I returned to St. Catharines – the scene of my academic washout – and secured a job with the catering company at the university, where I had previously worked part-time. And, most importantly, rented a room in the house where my friend Serge was living.

My friendship with Serge ended in spectacular fashion, but before it all went south, that summer might just have been the best of my life. On one of those nights, with nothing better to do, Serge and I jumped in his car with a case of beer and went to the drive-in to see “Sixteen Candles” and some other film whose identity has been lost to time.

I wish I could say I was really focused on the film, but when two or more young men get together and alcohol is involved, there’s usually as much screwing around as paying attention to any nominal focal point like a movie or whatever bullshit your girlfriend is complaining about. So it wasn’t until 6 or 9 months later when it showed up on The Movie Network that I appreciated what a great – albeit juvenile, sexually inappropriate and racially insensitive – film it was. But the music? Yeah, that caught me right away.

There are a ton of great songs in this film, and just seeing the titles takes me in my mind to the accompanying scene. It of course helps that I’ve probably watched it all the way through a dozen times, and can’t help but watch for 10 or 15 minutes if I come across it while channel surfing. It’s my favourite Hughes film – for all it’s inappropriateness, there is also a strange innocence to the film, and, yes, I am of the school that Farmer Ted is a complete gentleman who doesn’t take advantage of Caroline, and so that kiss is romantic, not creepy. The teens are not Ferris Bueller cool, they have issues: Ted hides his insecurity with bravado, Jake feels unappreciated, Sam’s whole family forgets her 16th birthday. Real teen trauma. Yeah, I know that’s a bit thick – it’s a movie. But I really love it.

And a big reason why it’s stuck with me is this song. After an entire film of misfortune – including having her story stolen out from under her by Anthony Michael Hall as Ted – Molly Ringwald’s Sam, emerging from the church after her sister’s wedding, watches the crowd disperse only to see dreamboat Michael Schoeffling’s Jake waiting for her. As the song’s opening plays under the scene, Sam and Jake navigate some miscommunication to come to the realization that both want the same thing: to be together. (I’m not crying, you’re crying.) (Also, pair this with “Breaking Away” for a double feature of Paul Dooley playing great dads.) And the film ends with their first kiss over her birthday cake, the end of an unexpectedly perfect day – just a day later than Sam had been hoping for, but far better than she ever imagined it could be.

It sounds like I love the song because of the movie but it goes both ways – the song helps me love the movie, too. It’s a perfect early ‘80s pop confection, all atmospheric synth and Tom Bailey’s whispery vocal and perfectly placed percussion from Joe Leeway. Despite the romantic context in the film, it’s about a dying love, not a blossoming one – the word “deceive” is not sung by accident. But the vibe of the song is completely New Romantic, and it sweeps you up.

Leeway left the band in 1986, and while it’s probably coincidental (no disrespect intended), they never had another major hit. But they left behind some great pop tunes – “King for a Day” is another personal favourite – and a couple of classic albums that probably don’t get played enough these days. The music of the early ‘80s was fun, and there isn’t nearly enough of that in the world today, or in music for that matter. It’s well worth spending some time with those records.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #23

George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today

Every time I see a photo of Johnny Cash, I think of my father. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why. If I look at the right photo at the proper angle I can see a physical resemblance, but that isn’t it. No, I think of my father when I see Johnny Cash because of who Cash isn’t. It’s because he isn’t George Jones.

I grew up around country music because that’s what my parents mostly listened to. (My mother also played the shit out of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”, and her album collection included such pop-folk wonders as Dan Hill’s “Longer Fuse”.) I know there was some Cash in there, because how else would I have heard it, and there was Merle Haggard and Don Williams (I think that was my mother’s pick) and the Statler Brothers and lots of others. And there must have been some Jones, because I knew “The Race is On” and “She Thinks I Still Care”, though the latter at least is a song that my dad also played.

I loved my father and I believe he loved me, in his own fashion, but I don’t think he liked me, and most of the time I didn’t much care for him either. We were just two very different people who could never find much common ground. We both loved hockey when I was younger, but that only took us so far (and still managed to be a source of conflict between us most of the time). Other than being someone I didn’t wish to emulate, I can’t say he played much of a role in who I became. (My mother is a very different story.) If he was still here, he’d probably agree with that statement, and be okay with me saying it – he likely wouldn’t want people thinking I was too much like him either.

In the early 2000s, I bought my father a Johnny Cash songbook for Christmas. He was underwhelmed, which is how I learned that George Jones was his favourite singer. (Merle Haggard was right up there, too.) Me being wrong about Cash and Jones’ places in my dad’s musical hierarchy is just another measure of the closeness of our relationship.

“He Stopped Loving Her today” (yes, this piece is still about a song, smartass – but thank you for sticking around this far into my therapy session) came out in April 1980, and I am absolutely certain that soon-to-be 16-year-old me did not have the song on his radar. By then, I had been fully emancipated from my parents’ musical tyranny, and likely had Billy Joel’s “Glass Houses” on repeat that spring and summer, along with Elvis Costello’s “Get Happy” and Pete Townshend’s “Empty Glass”. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1990s that I became aware of the song. The hows and whys don’t matter – it’s the discovery that counts. Because I am completely in agreement with those who rank it the greatest country song ever.

For a song about a life-altering love, there is a surprising amount of dark humour. The opening line – “He said I’ll love you ‘til I die” – immediately alerts you in its answer to the title that this is not a love song in its traditional form. There is also the mention a bit further on of “First time I’d seen him smile in years”, that rictus grin being a gift from death itself. Gently strummed guitar is paired with chill-inducing harmonica and slide guitar, leading into the operatic chorus. Jones’ vocal is impassioned and heartfelt: it’s a song that only a mature voice can do justice to, a voice that is a tiny bit shaky but still holding most of its former abundance.

After someone is gone, you don’t get do-overs, and I’ve never wanted one when it came to my father: I think we could have lived a thousand lifetimes together and never bridged the gap between us. In this case, biology is destiny. But I do wish I had embraced country music sooner: it would have at least given us something to talk about that (probably) wouldn’t have us butting heads in mere minutes. As for what happened after he was gone, a different version of us both may have found a way to bond over a song like George Strait’s “Give It Away” when my life was falling apart and I turned to music again and again for sustenance. That was something that he understood very well, and it makes me sad that we missed out on that opportunity: I think it would have done us both a world of good.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #22

Dan Hartman – I Can Dream About You

There are a LOT of jobs in the music business. The glamour spots, of course, involve being a successful solo performer or front person in a band. But every song ever recorded didn’t get that way without the involvement of writers, other musicians and singers, engineers, producers and/or a host of other players who don’t make the liner notes other than as special thank you’s to the artist’s significant other, massage therapist, dealer or life coach. Which means that a lot of people who are famous for a few minutes then seem to disappear are probably still very much involved in making music: they just aren’t famous for it anymore. Which brings us to Dan Hartman.

I have loved “I Can Dream About You” since I first heard it in 1984 in connection with the film “Streets of Fire”. I was not alone: it became a Top 10 hit, and has over 58 million steams – presumably mostly from nostalgic boomers like myself – on Spotify. But there are some odd background notes about this song. For years I thought Hartman was Black, which he absolutely was not. I guess I never saw the video when the song was a hit, so when the movie showed up on television around a year later (shoutout to a young Willem Defoe as the villain, but I don’t remember much else about the film but this song and Diane Lane looking like, well, Diane Lane, and that was enough), what I saw was four Black guys performing it. Even that was a bit of a trick: the actor playing the lead singer was lip syncing to a recording by another guy who was not Dan Hartman. Ah, movie magic.

Despite loving the song, and being a total music trivia nerd, I never looked into Hartman to see what became of him post-fame. This morning, Spotify suggested I listen to The Edgar Winter Group’s 1973 album “They Only Come Out at Night”, which turned out to be a brilliant recommendation. I’m reading about who worked on the album, and there I see Dan Hartman’s name. As it turned out, he had a pretty impressive career as a performer, writer, engineer and producer. He wrote and sang “Free Ride” for the Winter band, and co-wrote (with the awesomely-named Charlie Midnight) James Brown’s “Living in America”. As an artist, he sandwiched the disco hit “Instant Replay” between his rock work with Winter and the synth soul of “I Can Dream About You”. He worked with a ton of notable artists (including Tina Turner, Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker) and died way, way too fucking young from AIDS in 1994.

It sets the beat off the top, with a funk-lite edge and some thumping drums, followed by a sort-of scuzzy synth bass and faux piano, then Hartman starts singing, sounding like he was dropped onto the stage in front of a mic, as surprised as the audience is to see him there, and just decided to go for it. In a flash, we’re into the chorus, with smooth soul backing vocals acting as a layered echo to Hartman’s lead, and then it just sort of repeats the same motifs for the next round, before the tone alters slightly through said backup singers at just under the two-minute mark. Then we’re back to the initial setup, before the obligatory guitar solo as Hartman keeps on dreaming over and over and over until it fades out.

I can’t really rationalize my love for this song. The lyrics are meh, and the music is pretty much unvaried from beginning to end. But something about it picks me up and makes me want to strut. If I could dance, I could totally see myself swirling around a club floor, the star of my own “Saturday Night Fever” knockoff. (Check out the movie for what I see in my head. The outfits are pretty terrific, too.) That’s the ineffable magic of great pop music. It doesn’t comply with a logical analysis – it’s all about how it makes you feel. “I Can Dream About You” makes me happy, and it’s been doing so for 38 years and counting. Nothing else really matters, right?

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #21A/B

John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – Summer Nights/You’re the One that I Want

If you were a young boy – or girl, for that matter – who arrived on June 16, 1978 without having reached puberty, there’s a good chance your progress got a significant boost sometime that summer at the 1:41:38 mark of “Grease”. At that moment, after over 101 minutes of sexist jokes and bad acting but undeniably great music, Olivia Newton-John showed up all in black (save for those red shoes that angels so urgently desire) in a tight sweater and tighter pants (apparently, she did not simply slide into those pants but had to have them sewn onto her body), hair frizzed to its theoretical limits, and showed you the future, with all its potential delights and inevitable frustrations. And a glorious reveal it was.

If you had “Olivia Newton-John becomes a sex symbol” on your 1978 bingo card, you were very much in the minority. She was certainly pretty enough for the gig, but her music – all heartfelt ballads and country twang – did not fit the pop vixen model. The first 101 minutes of “Grease” hewed to this image: the last 10 did not. Let’s set aside for now the problematic suggestion that a girl needs to become a tart in order to win over the man she loves. Sure, he claims he is prepared to clean up his act so that he might be worthy of said love. But let us also not forget how quickly his makeover is abandoned when he sees that she has come over to the dark side.

The movie is pretty awful, and amazingly conservative for being so sex obsessed (or maybe it’s sex obsessed because it’s conservative – there was a great “Daily Show” joke in connection with Mark Sanford’s hike along the Appalachian Trail which noted that a lot of conservative men had liberal penises.) The women fare much better than the men, especially Stockard Channing as Rizzo and, to my surprise, Olivia’s often understated work as Sandy. (As an aside, we really didn’t need to wait until Olivia’s makeover – Dinah Manoff was just standing there, looking gorgeous and waiting to be noticed.) Her co-star, John Travolta, almost never stops mugging, and only his star power enables him to overcome this in quieter moments. But the music is the real star anyway, from rock ‘n’ roll classics to songs from the original stage production to new songs like “Hopelessly Devoted to You”.

“Summer Nights” and “You’re the One that I Want” are a matched pair, the former a contradictory account of young love, the latter coming after the lovers have travelled their journey into each other’s arms again. “Summer Nights”, which was taken from the stage show, is a traditional theatrical song, in that the music – with a lot of quietly picked bass notes and even quieter snare taps – is far less important than the lyrics, since it needs to help push the narrative along. Travolta’s thin singing voice works well with Olivia’s angelic tone, helping to highlight the distinction between their characters’ – in his case, fake – perspectives on events of their shared recent past. It is even shot in contrast, with the camera largely aimed up at Travolta and company, and more frequently at eye level – and thus more intimate – when the women are singing. The song has an updated 1960s’ girl group feel (if you ignore the boys’ guttural “well-a, well-a, well-a, huh” contribution), like the Brill Building hit that Goffin and King never got around to writing.

You’re the One that I Want”, written specifically for the movie, is more modern, and maybe sounds a bit too much like “We Go Together”, which follows it in the film. It doesn’t have to carry any narrative weight, so it can be a simple declaration of – well, what, exactly, is it declaring? Attraction and desire, for sure, but not really love. And the way it is staged in the movie is just weird AF. The T-Birds and Pink Ladies, the Greek chorus of the film to that point, are barely seen after the song’s first minute, but a bunch of unnamed backup dancers, including three creepy guys doing weird hand motions and a woman whose dancing style I would characterise as drunk duck, get ample screen time. Plus, the choreography towards the end of the song includes a way-ahead-of-its-time and completely-wackadoodle-for-its-tonal-incongruity country line dancing takeoff. Like I said, weird AF.

I loved “Grease” when I was 14: the following Halloween, my friend Kirk Boutilier and I were paired T-Birds, with me learning in the process – following several hours of repeated washing – that the greasers of the film’s era were not using Johnson’s Baby Oil to achieve their look. But times change: Olivia is, sadly, now gone, as is Jeff Conaway, who played Kenickie, and Travolta has probably never mattered less to the culture in the 50 years that he has been in the public eye. Nostalgia can only take you so far, and the movie will make you squirm at certain points (such as one male character committing what we would now characterize as sexual assault but was then just boys being boys, though certainly not for the girls involved). But the music – boisterous, joyful – hasn’t faded. Nostalgia is best served on your stereo, not your screen, in this case.