Jim Messina (the fictional version from Yacht Rock, not the real one) called it charming the snake. What does that mean, asked fictional Michael McDonald. “It means reinvent your image in a desperate attempt at relevance!” cried fake Christopher Cross, bursting through the garden gate with a pastel jacket and a Keytar.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, how else could you charm the snake but by going new wave? The odd thing was, some of those who did had the pop smarts to pretty much bring it off. (Yes, I am serious. No, you’re not reading Buzzfeed.)
Johnny and Mary – Robert Palmer
The crassness of Robert Palmer’s populist moves grate all the more in the knowledge that beneath the immaculate tailoring Palmer was an omnivorous music fan, with interests from across the spectrum; as well as securing the Comsat Angels a record deal, he covered songs by Gary Numan, Toots & the Maytals and even Hüsker Dü. That’s a deep music fan with broad tastes.
On his 1980 album Clues, Palmer hit the sweet spot between his commercial and experimental impulses. Apart from the aforementioned Numan cover (I Dream of Wires), it featured a Numan co-write as well as two of his strongest self-written efforts: the hyperkinetic Looking for Clues, which is close in spirit to McCartney’s similarly restless Coming Up and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (all three were released within months of each other), and Johnny and Mary, which is a singular proposition indeed.
While punk in its first wave had been about aggression, many of the bands that came after the initial explosion (whether you call them new wave or post-punk or something else entirely) found much of their effect by stripping away overt shows of emotion, aggression included. It’s in its blankness that Johnny and Mary is most obviously new wave influenced. With no true bassline (there’s a synth playing a low register-ish line, but it’s quite trebly and thin), Palmer fills up the low end with his voice, never emoting, forcing his words to fit the mechanical metre and reaching down to his very lowest note halfway through each verse. There’s no chorus, so the tension never breaks.
Had Palmer allowed himself to sing more demonstratively, trying to force us to empathise with these two lost souls, the delicate spell would have been broken. Johnny and Mary is powerful because he sings the whole song in the same detached way, as if he was a scientist observing and recording human behaviour, or as the video suggests, an author who is making his creations behave this way. It’s a great, well-judged vocal performance for what is maybe his finest song.
I Know There’s Something Going On – Frida
In 1982, during the last few months that ABBA were still a functioning group, Frida (Anni-Frid Lyngstad) was recording her third solo album, and her first in English, in Stockholm’s Polar Studios (which was also ABBA’s based). Lyngstad had approached Phil Collins about producing her after falling hard for Collins’s debut Face Value, and its atmospheric single In the Air Tonight.
It was a wise move. Collins was a coming force in music (not quite yet the world conquering megastar), and working with him put stylistic clear blue water between her music and ABBA’s. The single I Know There’s Something Going On, with its huge gated drums and raw guitars, was an uncompromising statement of intent: sort of heavy rock, kind of new wave, a little bit whatever the hell In the Air Tonight was, and only pop music in as much as it was made by a popular recording artist.
You have to wonder what Bjorn and Benny, then hard at work with Tim Rice on the songs for Chess, made of it. Did they admire its nerve or disapprove of its lack of refinement?
Young Turks – Rod Stewart
OK, I always try to be positive here, and maybe if I’d been there in the early seventies, I’d hear his leering grossness more tolerantly. But I can’t think of a bigger star in rock of pop with less worthwhile music to his name than Rod Stewart.
Which is what makes Young Turks all the more surprising. Near miraculous, in fact. My basic problem with Stewart’s music is that his sexist public persona – which, we shouldn’t forget, he knowingly cultivated – doesn’t make his moments of sensitive balladry all the more touching. It merely makes them less believable. You don’t have to like a singer to like their music, but while you’re listening to them, your distaste for their public image can’t overwhelm the song. The only time I can listen to Stewart’s music and not find myself appalled by Stewart personally is when I’m listening to Young Turks. Apart from The Killing of Georgie, it’s the only time I ever truly believe him. When he sings “Patti gave birth to a 10-pound baby boy” and shouts “yeah!” afterwards, it’s the most human he ever sounded.
It’s the contrast between that humanity in the vocal and the semi-mechanised music that makes it work. Like Johnny and Mary (which many have cited as the obvious inspiration for Young Turks), it’s pretty much all played by live musicians, but they play it clean, precise and dead on. The band Stewart assembled after ditching the ramshackle Faces and moving to the US, featuring Carmine Appice on drums, was more than capable of playing it that way; indeed, Appice is one of the listed writers on Young Turks, and he’s the band’s MVP on this recording, no question.
How Do I Make You – Linda Ronstadt
Linda Ronstadt, like Palmer, was a musical omnivore whose genuine enthusiasm for new music was too easily taken for ambulance-chasing cynicism by her detractors.
Ronstadt wasn’t the only member of LA’s music establishment who wanted a musical overhaul in the late 1970s. But unlike, Lindsey Buckingham, she didn’t have a band to push and pull against. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is fascinating precisely because Buckingham wanted to do one thing while his bandmates were happy doing the same old thing. The tension between his songs and the exquisite, intricately woven likes of Sara and Over and Over are exactly what makes Tusk so compelling. Ronstadt, in contrast, was sole ruler of her musical domain. She hired musicians, told them how to play and they’d play that way.
So Mad Love, released in 1980, gets arguably closer than anyone else of her generation to an authentic punk/new wave sound. Yet something like How Do I Make You, while a pretty accurate facsimile of Blondie in Hanging on the Telephone mode, remains just a little too cleanly played*, and Ronstadt is a little too studied vocally. She downplays her vibrato and tries to leave some rough edges, but she’s singing against her instinct.
Three years later she’d try her hand at the Great American Songbook with more mixed success.
Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime – The Korgis
The Korgis formed out of the remains of Stackridge, a more-or-less progressive British band who’d been around since the early seventies. Its principal members by then in their early thirties, the Korgis in 1980 were a little too old, a little too paunchy and their hairlines a little too receding for their new threads and shiny updated sound.
They managed quite a good trick in sounding like an alternate path John Lennon may have gone down for Double Fantasy if he hadn’t consciously turned his back on the future to retreat into his own past (Just Like Starting Over, with its Sun slapback, is plain pastiche), leaving Yoko to adjust to contemporary music on her own. The band’s James Warren, with his pudding bowl haircut, long nose and round glasses even looked like Lennon.
If, in the long term, Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime (the band’s biggest hit) has endured in a way that leaves many music fans unsure who recorded the original, the Korgis’ reinvention was an example of how veteran artists can reinvent themselves without total artistic compromise of the Starship/Asia variety.
*Ronstadt’s band consisted of Russ Kunkel, Bob Glaub, Mark Goldenberg and Billy Payne, and the record was produced by the fastidious Peter Asher, so of course it was never going to be messy.