Category Archives: Number Ones

Number One this Week in 1984: Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now) by Phil Collins

Thirty years ago this week Phil Collins scored the number one pop song in the country with “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” a song he’d written for the film Against All Odds. There’s no denying this is a great ballad and also one of the great soundtrack tunes from a year that produced many amazing songs from films (including Ghostbusters, Footloose, Sixteen Candles, Breakin’, Eurythmics’ 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother), and of course Purple Rain). I liked the song but never developed a real love for it. I wanted to give the song its due so I invited my friend Caroline to share her very passionate feelings for it. In addition to being a Phil Collins devotee, Caroline is also the author of the hysterical blog  Cringeworthy Stuff from My Journal. Prepare for the most emotional post this blog has ever seen!

Sean: Caroline, what are your memories of this song?

Caroline: I know it’s from a movie (Against All Odds) but I’ve not seen this movie. I was only 11 when the song came out but I absolutely loved it – and still do. I really think it’s a beautiful song. I don’t know if it stirred something in my pre-pubescent self – but of course I had no grasp of what the song was really about. I knew it was about love – in the abstract. I knew it was something about someone leaving you. I knew it was devastating. That was it. But I really thought that it was an emotionally wrought song and Phil Collins’ vocals were amazing and … this is all so embarrassing to admit!

Sean: So what’s your favorite moment of the song?

Caroline: It has to be towards the end when it sort of crescendos into that very passionate moment where he says, ‘Take a GOOD look at me now,’ instead of just ‘take a look at me now,’ as he has previously.

Sean: That ‘GOOD,” means he means it!

Caroline: He means it this time, with FEELING! And then it’s like a huge emotional moment but then it just goes back into the lilting piano of the beginning, very soft, very calm. I like the way it resolves. I love that moment. It’s very powerful

Sean: I can tell this is an emotional journey for you, both as an 11 year old girl and as a grown woman.

Caroline: And I don’t even know why. I remember seeing the video which of course had clips from the movie . And something very dramatic was going on, I couldn’t tell you what exactly.

Sean: I’ve never seen the movie either but based on the video i sense there’s infidelity. I also sense that at the end of the film someone drives into a garbage truck.

Caroline: A dramatic death scene perhaps! Very dramatic. My only beef with the song when I was younger was that I felt it should be longer. I felt there was a verse missing. As a child I remember thinking after the bridge there should be one more moment and I was sad it wasn’t longer – but today when I was listening to it it felt perfect at 3 and a half minutes.

Sean: For some reason I remember it being 12 minutes long. Ok now be honest with me – did you have a poster of Phil Collins on your bedroom wall?

Caroline: Surprisingly no -I did love the song, I did love many other Phil Collins songs but, however, I did not find him cute. Unlike Huey Lewis who did feature prominently on my wall, I did not have a poster of Phil Collins.

Sean: We’re going to deal with Huey Lewis AND The News in a future post. But back to Phil – no insult to him – but he is not the sexiest pop star – so applause to him for having number one songs without being a looker.

Caroline: Exactly – and I think he was genuinely a good singer.

Sean: A lot of people have covered this song. Mariah Carey famously. Have you heard the Mariah version?

Caroline: No – but I don’t know if Mariah can compete with Phil on this one. You don’t mess with the classics.

Note: I later played Mariah’s version for Caroline who had this to say: “Oooh she does a good job!! But that’s no shock- she’s Mariah, after all. I like hearing a woman sing it. But she doesn’t do the end justice like Phil did!!!! Too screechy.”)

Sean: This song knocked Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” out of the number one spot back in April, 1984. Do you remember that? How did you feel about it?

Caroline: I did like “Footloose” a lot but it did not have the emotional pull for me that “Against All Odds” did.

Sean: I envision 11 year old Caroline sitting in her bedroom listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 and dancing for joy when he announced “Against All Odds” stole the number one spot from “Footloose”.

Caroline: Absolutely – there may have even been tears. There was definitely a dash to the boom box to try to capture it on tape. And It stays with me as a song I just love. I don’t hear it very often anymore. I don’t even know if I can tell you why –  all I can do is just tell you I love it, I think it’s a beautiful song and it’s obviously still resonating with me today.

Sean: I think you’re tearing up right now. That’s a fact. Thank you for talking with me and sharing your thoughts about a song I could not muster the passion or emotion to write about myself. Maybe I’m dead inside, I don’t know. Thank you Caroline

Caroline: No problem. My pleasure. I look forward to our chat on Huey Lewis.

 

Michael Jackson’s Thriller: Let the Truth Unfurl (Part 1)

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The first single from Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released in October of 1982. So how is it possible to feature that album on this blog, which is dedicated to the music of 1984? It may seem like a Wikipedia mistake, but Thriller’s success was so massive it dominated the charts for almost two years. In 1983 – the album spawned SIX more top 10 singles. In January of 1984 the album’s seventh single, “Thriller,” would reach number one (thanks, in large part, to what many consider the greatest music video ever created). In February 1984 Thriller would win 8 Grammy Awards propelling the album to stay at number one for the first four months of the year! In total – the album was on the charts for 80 consecutive weeks! So what do we talk about when we talk about Thriller? All of the impressive stats are astounding, but the album would not have achieved that level of success if not for the music. And the videos. And that album cover.

And of course we have to talk about the Man who created the album (or shall we give proper credit and refer to the Men – Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton in addition to Michael Jackson?). Thriller ended its reign at the top during the third week of April, 1984, so to mark the occasion I’ve assembled three MJ experts. The sincerity of their love for and breadth of knowledge about the Jacksons is unsurpassed. They also happen to be my good friends so this isn’t the first time we’ve had a couple of drinks and spent hours engaged in Jackson related discussions. The four of us came into our Jackson obsessions at different times (for me it is the memory of watching The Jackson 5 cartoon and the Jackson Variety show and fantasizing about being Randy’s twin brother and experiencing the pure joy of having Randy and Janet as my peers and Michael and Jermaine as older brothers).

Here’s the first part of our Thriller talk.

Sean: I can remember the first time I heard Thriller – I don’t know about you guys – but I can remember being at my uncle’s house, picking up the album cover, staring at the picture and then opening the gatefold – and I remember hearing “Wanna Be Starting Somethin'” and I felt like I had never heard anything like that before.

Christine: My grandmother bought me two VHS tapes of the “Thriller” video. I was 5 years old maybe and in the same way we wore out the Wizard of Oz – we wore out the “Thriller” video.

Sean: Do you think anyone will ever beat Thriller’s records? Will any other album sell as much or be number one for so long?

Norman: No – I think it’s impossible with the modern model of music consumption – it just cant happen. Virtually impossible – it’s like saying can any TV show beat the Roots ratings record.

Sean: So what do you guys think – was Michael chasing that level of commercial success or was he trying to create an artistically great album?

Christine: Commercial success – 100%

Sean: Really?

Christine: He was so hungry after Off the Wall. He was so hungry.

(Note: Off the Wall sold 20 million copies but Michael was still very disappointed. He believed the record should have been much more commercially and critically successful and he became depressed when OTW did not win the Grammy for Record of the Year).

Shana: I have to wonder if Off the Wall had done as well as Michael wanted it to if anything remotely approaching Thriller would have been his follow up because I feel like he kind of did it in attempt to really reach everyone. You can’t say that you don’t like at least one song on Thriller. I don’t know if he would have had that same fire under his butt and had been that pissed off if not for Off the Wall.

Sean: Lightning round – favorite track on Thriller. Shana!

Shana: “The Lady in My Life”

Norman: It changes everyday but either “The Lady in My Life” or “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” is one of my favorite Michael Jackson songs ever! And so is “The Lady in My Life”.

Christine: I agree  – “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”. … and “The Lady in My Life”.

Sean: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” – that’s no surprise to anyone who knows me.

Christine: The song is about La Toya.

Shana: So SHE says

Norman: I heard it was about Liza Minnelli and her time at studio 54.

Christine: It’s about La Toya.

Shana: La Toya says its about her, but do we believe La Toya?

Norman: It is not about her! It is not about La Toya – he loved his sister!

Christine: He (Michael) has said it’s about her!

Sean: Wait – ‘if you can’t feed the baby/then don’t have the baby’. Who is pregnant?!? I feel like the song is all about unwanted pregnancy and Michael is being a little too judgmental. Was La Toya pregnant?

michael-and-la-toya-jackson

“I believe in me/so you believe in you”

(Note: We spend the next 5 minutes debating whether the song was written about La Toya Jackson. The discussion veers into the OWN docu-soap Life with Latoya and the revelation that La Toya is a 60 year old virgin. Christine stands firm on her belief the song is about La Toya and some of the Jackson’s sisters-in-law).

 

 

Shana: I have this theory, in a weird way Michael pioneered what we now know as ‘House’ without people paying attention to it. Not just like in songs like “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” and other percussion driven things but on each of his albums.  Whether intentionally or not he created a moment of possession that is really subliminal but it’s always there – as follows: Off the Wall – “Get on the Floor” – he has that breakdown where it’s all just like panting and shit and it’s very nod to the mother land I supposed. Thriller would be Ma Ma Se Ma Ma Sa Ma Ma Coo Sa / Ma Ma Se Ma Ma Sa Ma Ma Coo Sa (from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”) and it just goes on and on and on in a way that most artists would not let it go on.

Sean: You’re right, it just goes on for minutes – and you want it to go on for even longer.

Shana: And (on Bad) “Smooth Criminal” – that séance moment in the video. Where they all sway and start screaming. I feel like it’s this part of him that no one really talks about.

Sean: You know what I love about that theory – a lot of people criticize Michael for abandoning his black roots . . .

Shana: Totally not true.

Sean: but musically he didn’t abandon his black roots.

Norman: Not at all

Sean: Do you think Thriller is a perfect album? My answer would be ‘no’ because for me – on a perfect album every single song is amazing and perfect. As great as it is, Thriller doesn’t pass that test. It’s great, but not perfect.

Norman: What song do you skip?

Christine: I skip the track ‘Thriller.’

Sean/Norman/Shana: – What?!?!?!!?

Norman: First of all Christine don’t ever say that again – “Thriller”, the song, is amazing!

Shana: I’m not having it.

Norman: The breakdown in that song . . .

Shana: At the end?

Norman: Yes!

Shana & Norman: (singing the breakdown together in perfect harmony):  ‘Thriller  . .Thriiiiler’

Norman: It gives me chills and it makes me run faster on the treadmill. You know what song I skip? “The Girl is Mine”.

Shana: I skip that too

Sean: You know that was the first single from the album.

Norman: I did not know that.

Shana: I always forget that song is on the album.

Christine: That song is so good!

Shana: Sean – what’s the one you skip?

Sean: Let’s rundown the album

thriller back cover

Almost Perfect?

Shana: “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”

Sean: Perfect.

Norman: “Baby Be Mine”

Sean: Amazing.

Norman: “The Girl is Mine”.

Sean: Fine.

Norman: “Thriller”

Sean: Yes.

Norman: “Beat it!”

Sean: YES!

Norman: “Billie Jean”

Sean: Brilliant!

Norman: “Human Nature!”

Sean: The best!

Norman: “P.Y.T.” and then “The Lady in My Life”

Sean: Oh – so I I’m taking my earlier statement back – it is a perfect album.

Shana: So you like, “The Girl is Mine”?

Sean: its catchy , its sweet so  . . .

Norman: I always skip it. ALWAYS.

Shana: Me too. I never listen to it.

Sean: So you are saying Thriller is not perfect?

Shana: I say it is because every song isolated (except for The Girl is Mine) is perfect alone.  But I feel like you release an album because the songs need to be released together and I think those song don’t need to be together. They could easily be singles that were all just released. I think I’m really just searching to figure out what’s the one thing conceptually that’s driving all those songs… Do you feel like when you listen to Thriller, when you listen to it straight through – what’s the identity of that album – what is it saying about him  what statement is he making with Thriller conceptually.

Norman: For me that album reminds me so much of my older sisters who were teenagers when that was out. It was a time when I really really looked up to them and thought they were the coolest people on the planet. They loved it! So for me when I listen to it I hear 80’s black youth. That’s what the album says to me  – the sounds, the instruments, some of the slang –  it’s all a time capsule of 80’s black youth.

Sean: Maybe the theme of the album is : Michael Jackson – our greatest musical mind and he’s saying, ‘here are all of the genres I love  and I’m going to absorb them and emit them back through my lens.” Maybe that’s the theme – there is so much different music he loved and he was drawn to. But he was going to make every genre his own.

Coming up in Part 2 – after a few more drinks we discuss Thriller’s videos and the unbelievable lengths Jackson’s team had to go to get those videos on MTV. Plus why Thriller was Michael Jackson’s ultimate sacrifice.

You Might Also Like my Countdown of the Best Post-Thriller Michael Jackson Songs in 1984:

Michael Jackson at his best in 1984

#2 – Centipede

#3 – Say Say Say

#4 – Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’ (Too Good To Be True)

#5 – Farewell My Summer Love

#6 – Somebody’s Watching Me

Cameo was Strange – and I Liked It.

In 1984 Cameo’s, ‘She’s Strange’ sat on top of Billboard’s R&B charts for the entire month of April. The tune combined elements of disco, funk, rap and R&B and in addition to being a catchy, sexy pop song – it served as one of the year’s best anthems for the freaks and eccentrics of the time.

"Now I'm a different guy/ And I don't compare to many"

“Now I’m a different guy/ And I don’t compare to many”

Cameo wasn’t alone embracing otherness in the mid-80’s. Boy George, Annie Lennox, and Michael Jackson all made being odd feel very mainstream. Also, is it a coincidence that the title of Cyndi Lauper‘s debut album, She’s So Unusual, is so similar to the title of Cameo’s single? Well actually – yes – that probably is a coincidence (but let’s pause for a moment and imagine the magic that would have resulted if Blackmon and Lauper had recorded a song together. That should have happened!) Of course funk musicians like George Clinton and Africa Bamabaataa were letting their freak flags fly well before 1984; but there was something about Cameo’s exploration of weirdness – especially in this song  – that really intrigued me.

“Straaaaaaaaange!”

Even before the music starts Cameo lets us know what we’re in for.  It’s their one word, harmonic, declarative statement that sets us up for the simple, brilliant chorus.

“She’s Strange/And I like it”.

It’s the word ‘and‘ that really made the song interesting to me. Blackmon is stating he likes this woman because she’s different. Imagine if the chorus were “She’s strange/but despite her strangeness I still find her appealing,” See the difference? Not as interesting, right?  In all seriousness, I remember thinking about that line quite a bit the first few times I listened to the song. So – being odd is good? Difference can be sexy? Of course those are simple and true statements  – but how often, either as a teen or an adult do we need to be reminded of those facts? This music video is a great time capsule of mid-80’s R&B imagery. Jheri curls? Check. Women with big hair? Check. Dressed in neon day glo colors?  Check! Check!

Larry Blackmon's brother from another mother?

Freddie Mercury: Larry Blackmon’s brother from another mother?

But what really stands out for me is Blackmon’s style. Blackmon rocked the ‘the 70’s are not quite over ‘stache’ like no else –  with the possible exception of Freddie Mercury (I think of Blackmon and Mercury as brothers in arms  – from different musical genres and different countries, but sharing the goal of fighting for the rights of freaks everywhere).       Blackmon’s style in the video is amazing. The muscle T, the leather jacket, the sunglasses –  Blackmon was serving three minutes and forty seven seconds of On the Waterfront realness! Two years later he’d cement his style icon status by 1) sporting an enviably high flat top 2) wearing that unforgettable red codpiece. I’d place that codpiece right alongside Elvis’ blue suede shoes, Madonna’s cone bra, and Michael’s glove. It’s iconic! Someone needs to write an epic poem about that codpiece!

So Much Depends Upon/ A Red Codpiece

30 Years later I’m just as intrigued by the song and video and have just as many questions. Is Blackmon gay? Is he straight? Was that a whore-house in the middle of the desert the band just visited? Why so many shots of women applying toe nail polish?  How can a woman be one’s Al Capone, one’s Rollingstones and one’s Eva Peron? Many questions without definite answers. 30 Years later the song and video are still inscrutable, the music is still great and I still like it.

Number One This Week in 1984: Footloose

This week in 1984 Kenny Loggin’s Footloose was the number one pop single (the song was number one for three weeks in a row – from March 31st to April 14th). This was the first single from the soundtrack for the hit film of the same name starring Kevin Bacon. Pop Culture confession – I’ve never seen this movie. Somehow I missed it when it was out in the theaters and then for the next 30 years on TV. I don’t feel like I’m missing out because the music video shows me everything I need to know. – Teen angst and parental oppression are no competition for the power of gymnastics, dancing and Kevin Bacon in a tank top.

I haven’t heard or thought about this song in years – but after watching the video I think it holds up really well. So much energy, so much fun. And despite some really stiff competition – this tune would go on to win the Grammy for Song of the Year.

What do you think – when you hear this song – does it still make you want to cut loose?