Note from Jason: Today, we begin the first installment of four very special Chart Attack! posts, graciously contributed to us by unbelievably talented writers. Today’s entry is written by Mr. Matthew Bolin. Matthew is a contributor for the excellent blog All Time Champion – World’s Greatest Song Daily, posting under the name "The Magic Man." (Remember his excellent Olivia post?) Okay, enough blather from me – let’s get to the goods from March 1, 1986!
10. These Dreams – Heart Amazon iTunes
9. Secret Lovers – Atlantic Starr Amazon iTunes
8. Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) – Mike + The Mechanics Amazon
7. Life In A Northern Town – The Dream Academy Amazon iTunes
6. When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going – Billy Ocean Amazon iTunes
5. The Sweetest Taboo – Sade Amazon iTunes
4. Living In America – James Brown Amazon iTunes
3. Sara – Starship Amazon iTunes
2. How Will I Know – Whitney Houston Amazon iTunes
1. Kyrie – Mr. Mister Amazon iTunes
Like a kid on Christmas Eve, I eagerly awaited Jason’s chart-gift to arrive in my email inbox, wondering what day of pop delights would await me. Then, it finally arrived: March 1, 1986; and…..
First question: what the hell was going on in this country in 1986?! I suppose I could make some snarky comment involving Reagan, Oliver North, and Gordon Gekko, but that seems a little too trite and political, especially for a mini-review of the Billboard Top Ten. But still….kripes man!! Was this really the chart? Or did Jason actually get his hands on K-LITE’s “Big 80’s Mellow Rock Flashback Weekend” drive-time playlist?
Well, when the charts give you lemons, you write lemonade. So pucker up, music lovers!
10. These Dreams – Heart As mentioned way back in Chart Attack #8, this was the third top-10 hit in a row off of Heart’s self-titled 1985 album. Yes, they gained their first #1 song with this cut (it would top the chart the week of March 22), but at what cost to their previously held “these chicks can rock!” semi-respectability? They had to give their souls over to the team of Martin Page and Bernie “this is my ‘Lost Weekend’ from Elton” Taupin, the team that helped give the world Starship’s “We Built This City” (insert dry heaves here).
To be honest, this is a very pretty song, with its alternating soft and harder rhythm section and variant keyboard orchestrations. It also showed off the vocal stylings of Nancy Wilson for the first time (all previous Heart singles had Ann on lead), proving two things: both sisters can sing, and Cameron Crowe is a lucky bastard.
An interesting factoid about this song: apparently it was written specifically for Stevie Nicks, who turned it down. If you’re familiar with the video for this song, it would seem that Page and Taupin’s logic was to then go to the next most famous female blond rocker who was dressing like a witch at the time. Also, if you’ve seen the video, I’m sure you can agree with me on two other things: even pretty “straight ahead” videos in the 1980s could be kind of weird, and Cameron Crowe is a lucky bastard.
9. Secret Lovers – Atlantic Starr Peaking at #3 just earlier in the year, this was the smooooooth R&B group’s first top-10 pop hit, though it was actually the third single from their album As the Band Turns (though I think the previous single, “Freak-A-Ristic”, should have been a big hit based on title alone). The tune is quite nice, but the lyrics are laughable, especially in the context of most other “silky” R&B tunes of the era:
In the middle of making love we notice the time
We both get nervous ‘cause it’s way after nine
We both know that we should not be together
‘Cause if we’re found out, it could mess up
Both our happy homes
Well, home can’t be too happy if they’re shtuping each other, can it? I think it’s the general incongruity of a smooth love ballad consisting almost entirely of paranoid “we’re going to get caught!” lyrics that makes it, well, funny more than anything else. Anyway, this single’s success would be trumped by the superior, though still noxiously overplayed, “Always” the following year.
Note: This song has made a “sort-of” comeback in the past few months via a reinterpreted version in a T-Mobile phone ad. And by “reinterpreted”, I mean that they had somebody rewrite just enough notes that they could get around the copyright (and thus royalty) restrictions. Ah, capitalism! Is there anything you can’t do?
8. Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) – Mike + The Mechanics Okay, this is a weird one. Mellow, but weird. It seems that Peter Gabriel wasn’t the only source of bizarre prog-nacity in Genesis. Note that the song doesn’t actually say anything about “silence”—it merely asked ad infinitum “Can you hear me? / Can you hear me running?” Going by the title, I guess the obvious answer is “No”. Combining Cold War paranoia in the lyrics with a compressed, keyboard layered arrangement, and kissed by the soulful pub-rock vocals of Paul Carrack, the first single from the Mike Rutherford side project became one of the most unlikely top-tens of the decade, peaking at #6, and proving that just being associated with Phil Collins in 1986 could give you a hit.
And that parenthetical add-on: On Dangerous Ground? Ever wonder about that? The single said that it was from “the movie On Dangerous Ground”, but no movie from the mid-80s with that title exists. The video, however shows clips from a low-budget movie entitled Choke Canyon, about (I crap you not) a “cowboy physicist” trying to protect his valley from toxic waste dumpers, and be rid of them in time so he can rendezvous with a passing comet and prove his theories. So, apparently the movie was going to be called On Dangerous Ground at one point, and……yeah, the plot does sound like the concept for an early Genesis album.
7. Life In A Northern Town – The Dream Academy The Dream Academy’s debut single was about Nick Drake—the “Northern Town” of the title being Drake’s home of Tanworth-in-Arden. While the lyrics (very) distantly celebrated a 70’s folker, the sound was pure 80’s British New Romanticism: a band whose sound has been turned into something quite un-band like by the compressed, electronic production of the time (what I like to call the “Duran Duran studio effect”), with a rather twee lead singer leading the charge. But of course that’s all redeemed by those haunting, philosophical lyrics. Sing along everybody! :
Ah-hey ma ma ma, hey-dee-da-na-ya!
Hey ma ma ma, hey-ay-ay-ay, ah!
As you can probably tell, I don’t have much of a high opinion of this song. Confession: I have a bit of a personal bias regarding it, in large part because my wife likes this song so much. And when she likes a song, she plays it….every day, regardless of the fact that it’s twenty years old. When it comes to popular music, she has advanced no further than 1987. On the flip side, she did help me realize that .38 Special’s “Caught Up in You” is really a killer track.
Oh yeah, back to The Dream Academy. This song peaked at this spot—landing there the previous week, holding this week, then beginning its decent the next. By the summer, the group, and its hair, had slipped out of America’s collective conscience, forever to be tagged with the label of one-hit wonders.
6. When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going – Billy Ocean Just like Usher, I’m about to hit you with confession #2: this is my favorite song on this chart. There’s just something vastly enjoyable about it, perhaps because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And I hate to say it, but “Mutt” Lange, co-writer and producer, really knows how to arrange a tune for maximum use of a hook. I’ve always thought that the call and response (“Darlin’….”) that begins the verse-chorus link is one of those perfect little pop moments, and Lange seems to realize this, so the last time through he has it happen four times instead of two. The lesson, as always: Extra hooks = extra hits, “Mutt”-style!
Additionally, it doesn’t hurt that the video features Danny DeVito pretending to play a sax that’s as big as he is. He, along with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, appeared in the clip, the song being the theme to their film The Jewel of the Nile. Actually, their appearance in the video got it banned in England, because they played “musicians” in it, lip-synching the backing vocals. Since they were not part of a proper musician’s union, they were committing a music no-no as far as the UK was concerned, and thus the video could not be shown there. Ironically, the song became Ocean’s only #1 hit in the UK. In the US, just like my confession, it made it to #2, becoming the fifth of his seven top 10 hits in this country during the 1980s.
5. The Sweetest Taboo – Sade Just what is the sweetest taboo? Well considering that at one point Sade actually sings about “the quiet storm”, I think it’s obvious that smooth jazz is the answer. Yes, it’s a smooth jazz love song to smooth jazz. A meta-love song, if you will. Okay, maybe not; but it makes as much sense as anything else regarding either the song or the artist. Both the lyrics and the music are pleasant, yet a bit meandering. In fact, it doesn’t actually seem to have verses or choruses. Yes, it does segue into the title at a couple of points, but it doesn’t do it via the distinct, natural methods of most popular music. One minute she’s going on about hesitating to talk about talking, the next minute—there’s the title, put forth in a slightly chorus-like style.
The there’s Sade herself. Or rather Sade themselves, because technically Sade is both the lead singer, and the entire band, which is why whenever Sade is nominated for awards, it’s in the group categories. Yet every album has just a picture of Sade the lead singer on it. Confused? I sure am—Sade seems to foil much logic as far as I’m concerned: from the pronunciation of the name, down to the continued success. Every studio album is multi-platinum in the United States, even though this song (here at its peak position), is the last of their two U.S. top tens. Yet fourteen years later, the Lovers Rock album would sell over two-million copies here without the benefit of airplay. How did this happen? It’s not like this is outstanding stuff. Even in Sade’s (the singer, not the band) small niche genre of “Female Smooth Jazz Singers who Peaked During the 1980s” she still places second (both vocally and tune-wise, she’s got nothing on Anita Baker). Yet here Sade comes, every few years, out of the woodwork, mellowing a few million people into buying the latest album, while frustrating and confusing guys like me.
Wait….maybe that’s the sweetest taboo!
4. Living In America – James Brown (download) This is what you get when you combine an American music pioneer with the soundtrack to an American hero, and mix it thoroughly with Dan Hartman. While the result isn’t anywhere near as raw or funky as classic James, it was still a good song with a great horn arrangement, and easily the hardest thing in the top 10 this week. Plus James is in good voice. I especially like the way he sings “and a hard roll”, and gets a bit of playful snark in at Eddie Murphy. Like many of the tunes this time through the chart, this was this song’s peak position.
What I don’t understand is why this track does not appear on the Brown 4-CD career retrospective Star Time. It would seem to be an obvious inclusion, given its success. Was it merely the inability to obtain licensing and re-publication rights to the track, or did the compilers think that it would be a poor way to end the set, and left it off altogether? I have yet to find evidence that would explain this fact one way or another.
Of course, I can’t leave this song alone without (you know what’s coming) giving props to Weird Al’s brilliant parody, “Living With a Hernia”. Here’s the video of that (check out especially the bridge, in which Al is able to mention almost every type of hernia, and stay within the beat of the song) :
One final note about “Living in America” you may or may not be familiar with: the background vocals are arranged and mostly sung by Randy Jones—the original “cowboy” from the Village People. Go back and listen to the song again. I bet it’s going to sound to you like a Village People song with James Brown on lead from now on….
3. Sara – Starship While Paul Kantner probably has never been forced to subsist on microwaveable mac & cheese, he probably may have had a vision or two of those cartoon moneybags-with-wings flying away after he left Jefferson Starship, leaving it with no original members, and then saw the band he helped found (a) change their name; (2) re-vamp themselves into an even slicker pop-based unit, and (iii) have their first two singles hit #1, something that Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship did not accomplish. But, if he did have that vision, I think he probably consoled himself with the thought: “Well….at least both songs are crap…even by my standards.”
“Sara”, the second piece-of-crap #1, has the benefit of being less crappy that “We Built This City”, which is kind of like saying “the itching isn’t as bad as the burning”. Instead of the in your face synth bombast of the earlier song, “Sara” gives you a smoother level of synth bombast, opening with the sound of synth vibes, joined by synth harmonica (!!!), then by synth bass, a synthesized drum, a guitar that might as well be a synth, and for good measure, a couple of more synths for added texturing–and by texturing, I mean, Atari 2600-esque special effects. These synths, featuring Starship, would ascend to the top of the charts for the week of March 15.
2. How Will I Know – Whitney Houston (download) Speaking of video game effects—what a perfect segue into the next song, which doesn’t even bother to keep its use of Donkey Kong as source material in the background (check it out at the eight second mark).
Seriously, though, Whitney was so big just when I was really getting into music that I think I was prejudiced against her. This song was the second of seven consecutive singles of hers to reach #1, spending the previous two weeks at the top of this chart. She was just too big—every song hitting #1, putting her on a chart par with the Beatles. It was sacrilege, I tells ya! But looking back, hearing this song twenty years after the fact, I can appreciate how good Houston’s voice was. The songs she was given, especially in the early parts of her career, were almost always strictly MOR pop, even though she had the natural talent of an R&B and soul singer; but she always sang the hell out of them, and not with the kind of overdramatic trills and stylistic touches that have become de rigueur since Mariah Carey appeared, but simply with the strength of her vocal abilities. Her life has pretty much been a train-wreck for the better part of a decade, but supposedly she’s cleaning herself up and finishing up a comeback album next month. Godspeed Ms. Houston; may the curse of Bobby Brown finally be lifted from you.
1. Kyrie – Mr. Mister This song has always made me a bit, well, squirmy. Part of it has to do with the main line of the song, which translates to “Lord have mercy”. Yes, when Richard Page sings that, he’s singing specifically of the New Testament God, or else he wouldn’t be singing the line as it appears in the traditional Christian liturgy. But my feelings regarding the song don’t simply exist because of religious differences, since I’m one of the worst practicing Jews there are. (In fact, as I type this, I’m also eating a bacon, cheese, and crab sandwich.)
The real problem, as I see it, is not that “Kyrie” is basically a crossover Christian rock song; it’s that it’s a really pretentious crossover Christian rock song. There’s something about bands that you think are English but turn out to be American which is connected to their level of pretentiousness. Such is the case with Mr. Mister, who I swear I thought was British until I checked their history while writing this guide. I really have to agree with blogger Palinode’s criticism of the song, that even with its catchy chorus, what it mainly offers is a “pretentious title, processed guitar chords, and the sneaking suspicion that you’ve been made to listen to Christian rock without signing the consent forms.” And, once you get that feeling of “Is this Christian Rock?” stuck in your head, it eminently affects your entire listening experience. You notice the more “traditional” elements of Christian Rock that exist almost unchanged even today: the really clean guitar sounds, the choir-like background vocals, the undefined “you” that is being sung to, who is “leading” the singer along “roads” our “paths” to “light”. Then mix all of that with lyrics like this,
My body burns a gemlike flame.
Somewhere between the soul and soft machine
Is where I find myself again.
and….Really? “Gemlike flame”? “Soft machine”?! You really thought it was clever to use terminology from Williams Burroughs which was then co-opted for the name of a prog-band?
So not surprisingly, a few months after the March 1st and 8th charts where “Kyrie” was #1, seemingly the entire world came to the same conclusion I did, even as a young lad. And that conclusion was “Screw you, Mr. Mister, you pretentious f*cks!” And so while the follow up to “Kyrie, “Is It Love”, would hit the Top-10, after that Mr. Mister would never again have another top-Ten song or album anywhere. What a happy note to end this stroll through the charts on, eh?
Well, that’s it for me, fellow Hare fans. It was really fun, even with all the 80s-style mellowness biting at my eardrums. So until next time we meet, in the immortal words of Casey Kasem: Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds, and marry an enormously tall blonde woman.
(Thanks so much to Matthew for this kick-ass post! Be sure to visit All Time Champion for more Bolin-y goodness, and see you next week for our second guest-penned CHART ATTACK!)