Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

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in praise of the catchy mainstream pop song

"'Cause she's so high
High above me, she's so lovely
She's so high, like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, or Aphrodite
She's so high, high above me"--Tal Bachman

Tonight I realized that Tal Bachman, one of my favorite one-hit wonders, is the son of Randy Bachman of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

The revelation jarred me from this current spiritual plane into another, less green, but more fluffy, plane of radio-pop hit madness.

Tal Bachman's one hit is the worthy "She's So High", about a potentially attainable seemingly unattainable woman, but mainstream hits I love run the gamut of lyrical and musical themes. For example, nothing in August beats "The Boys are Back in Town", Thin Lizzy's exuberant paean to returned "wild eyed boys", while Supertramp's "Take the Long Way Home" deals with the problems of fame.
Kraftwerk's "Autobahn", a thinking man's silly hit, dwells on a German highway, while Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" recounts a fire which destroyed a recording studio in Switzerland.

I love the way that bands I don't even particularly like can enchant me with the right song. For example, I would consider the Eagles relatively low on my excite-o-meter, as several other exponents of the "gee, we'd be the Allman Brothers or Gram Parsons, but we're stuck in Burbank" 1970s Southern California sound did the same types of pop moves much more to my taste. Yet, when Timothy B. Schmidt hauls out that falsetto on the heartbreaking "I Can't Tell You Why", I'm singing along, in the highest register my poor, falsetto-scourged voice can manage.

Not all light pop classics are by one-hit wonders, of course, as Wings' "Jet" and "Silly Love Songs" attests. Steely Dan built a whole career on being smart and quick with a light pop song. I love to listen to "Reeling in the Years" at the relative outset of their careers, or "Time Out of Mind" from the latter part.

Pop songs can be frighteningly powerful things. Neil Young wrote that he stopped writing hits after the adulation "Heart of Gold" received took him aback. REM's "Radio Free Europe" came to symbolize a whole lot of good things and bad things about cult bands gone mainstream.

I'd like to single out two songs for the title of gurdonark's greatest light pop anthems.
Both share some similar traits. Both are by essentially regional acts that eventually became "megastars". Both were released over and over and over again, in an era when pop songs could be "tried again" if they did not hit, or hit in a modest way, the first time. Both somehow connect the listener almost at once with what the performer is about, so that one could almost listen to the song and "get" the performer's entire career.

What two songs qualify? Why, Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me" and Aerosmith's "Dream On". Todd always fascinates me, because he had the ability through much of his career to write incredibly commercial material, but chose to do so only when record sales absolutely demanded it. "Hello, It's Me" is such a 70s song, in which the fellow tells the gal "It's important to me/that you know you are free", as an antidote for having taken her for granted, but nonetheless offers the seemingly noble option to her of visiting and spending the night if she thinks he should. Nothing quite like breaking up with someone, but keeping one's options open. Rundgren released this song with his first recording band the Nazz, where it was a breakout regional hit a few times, and then released the "Something/Anything" version a time or two until the song became a hit. Aerosmith's "Dream On" also got the multiple release treatment, as this Boston band sought to go nationwide. "Dream On", to me, shows how a band can pay an immense homage to another band, but still show its individuality. In those days, Aerosmith seemed to say "we'd be Led Zep if we could, but we can't", and somehow this proved to be an incredibly charming statement, upon which the band has now made some 20 years of fundamentally similar recordings. Heck, they're fun!

Now, I like a lot of songs as well as I like "Hello, It's Me" or "Dream On". My very favorite songs of all never got played on the radio. But I do like that some songs are part of some common experience, and when I hear the sax break on "Hello, It's Me", I know somehow that the shiver that runs down my spine is also running down millions of other spines. The artists Carole King and Pink Floyd literally recorded albums (King's "Tapestry" and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon") that ran shivers down tens of millions of spines, King through putting great early 60s pop songs in 70s-friendly arrangements, and Pink Floyd for undertanding that absurdity needs a soundtrack.

So I'll pause in this pre-dawn, for a moment, and adulate songs like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils' "Jackie Blue", the Sanford-Townsend Band's "Smoke of a Distant Fire" or Al Stewart's "(You're on my Mind like a) Song on the Radio". You know, songs that make lives more interesting, merely by appearing on the radio dial.
Songs like any Barry White song, or Bronski Beat's cover of "love to love you baby". One need not even be haughty about pop songs, because even "serious" bands did them. Life would be more grim without Joy Division's "Love Will Tear us Apart", for example, which manages to make romantic despair endearingly catchy. It's a whole other post, by the way, about bands like the dB's that should have had two dozen megahits, but only charted one (a pleasant suicide ditty). I'll write that one, complete with Jim Carroll reference, on another day.

Call me maudlin, call me a sheep of the corporate record machine, but don't call me for about 3 minutes and 30 seconds, when the current song I love has finished playing.
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