“So Perfect in Every Way”: Six Unsung Pop Songs from the 1980s

Features / July 12, 2018

Okay, so we were originally going to do a Peter Gabriel album (or the Shock the Monkey video) in this slot, but, after hearing you guys worship at the altar of Phil for the last two weeks, I no longer want anything to do with the man or his musical relations. We each get two songs to rescue from a shameful obscurity, so here goes…

“Looker” by Sue Saad/Kim Carnes

“Looker,” the 1981 theme song for the Albert Finney movie of the same name, is my first choice. Written by Barry De Vorzon, who wrote the soundtracks for Night of the Creeps and The Warriors, and Michael Towers, the song was originally performed by Sue Saad and the Next, a hit-or-miss L.A. band. This one’s a bullseye. The chorus is simple and perfect: quietly alternating synth chords and single bass notes, somewhere between new wave and radio-friendly post-punk. The melody is to die for, and Saad nails it. Drums and raw guitars enter on the punk-ish chorus, also catchy as hell; the soft-loud dynamic, so often overused, is brilliant here. And the lyrics are pretty cutting as well, reflecting the film’s pointed satire of TV, technology, and the ridiculous lengths women are expected to go to “look perfect in every way”:

But when she smiles
Is she really smilin’?
She’s the only one who really knows
Emerald eyes so cool and so inviting
Hide the side she never shows

She’s a looker
That’s what they say
She’s got it all, yeah
She’s got it made
She’s a looker
With a beautiful face
Always on display

As good as Saad’s version is, Kim Carnes absolutely destroys it on her 1982 album Voyeur (if we were touting unsung pop albums, Voyeur would be on my list). First off, Carnes can sing. By this point, she’d been a successful solo artist for many years, had written songs for superstars like Kenny Rogers (with whom she also performed), and Barbra Streisand was among those covering her ’70s output. Carnes didn’t hit it big commercially until 1981, though, with the release of the Grammy Award-winning “Bette Davis Eyes”—another brilliant cover and the lead track on 1981’s Grammy-nominated Mistaken Identity. It was a big change in sound for her—shifting from adult contemporary ballads to layered synthpop—and the transformation became complete on Voyeur. Her “Looker” is, and I don’t take the word lightly, epic. The production (by Val Garay) is much tighter than the original, throwing Carnes’s distinctive raspy vocals into relief. The end of the track, which dies down and builds up again, with distorted guitar burning over repeating minor key synth riffs, would not sound out of place on a Cure album from the same era. —Roberts

“Faces” by Clio

Much as I love Peter Gabriel, let’s be honest—he can be a bit of a dry bastard. And he’d certainly never have come up with anything like 1985’s Faces.

Underpinned by the ominous thump that starts it off, the track’s bounce and crash is by turns uneasy and euphoric, its unintelligible lyrics—delivered in a beautiful, incongruously human voice—somehow suggesting profound meaning. Seeming to shift under your feet as you listen to it, and evoking a kind of dazed, weightless melancholy, Faces feels both blissful and vaguely resigned, like pangs of existential angst while walking under a beautiful blue sky. Until all angst is swept away by that redemptive chorus.

There’s not really much to say about the team behind the song, which is the work of the enigmatic Clio herself (aka Maria Chiara Perugini, her stage name perhaps inspired by Belgian pop goddess Lio?) and prolific Neapolitan producer Roberto Ferrante, who had released another beaut the previous year with Eyes. But despite the dearth of information, Faces is everything you could want from a pop song—completely disposable while at the same time pregnant with an elusive yet accurate insight into the human condition. —McKenna

“Alibis” by Sérgio Mendes

I’m dipping my toe into Yacht Rock-adjacent pop with my first choice, “Alibis,” by Sérgio Mendes, featuring vocalist Joe Pizzulo. Sérgio is one of those multigenerational, global pop music figures who doesn’t get enough credit for all the cultural barriers he’s broke down during his half-century-long career. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mendes, a formally-trained composer and band leader from the Rio de Janeiro suburbs, found success thanks to Cold War America’s interest in tropicalia and exotica. America’s hunger for Latin dancing like the bossa nova and the samba allowed Mendes to carve out a career leading bands and recording albums in America. Picked up by exotica trumpet legend Herb Alpert’s label A&M, Mendes formed his Brasil ’66 band and found success in the States playing a mix of Brazilian and American pop.

All throughout his career, Mendes acted as bandleader, composer, and keyboardist, leaving singing duties to a rotating cast of guest vocalists. Lani Hall (who married Alpert in 1973), Bibi Vogel, and Janis Hansen anchored Brasil ’66, singers Bonnie Bowden and Gracinha Leporace (Mendes’s wife) worked with him on his Elektra output during the ’70s. In 1983, on Mendes’s self-titled return to A&M, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil composed a pop/adult contemporary duet for Joe Pizzulo and Leeza Miller, “Never Gonna Let You Go,” that was a huge hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 (#4) and Adult Contemporary (#1) charts.

“Alibis” comes off the follow-up to 1983’s Sérgio Mendes, 1984’s Confetti, and while a more modest #29 on the Hot 100, the single features much more of vocalist Joe Pizzulo. A longtime studio backup vocalist, Pizzulo is finally given the chance to shine. A tale of a lover’s suspicion about where his partner might be tonight (accompanied by the confession that sneaking around is originally “exactly the way we met”), “Alibis” sparkles with synthesized percussion, a super-catchy bassline, a sultry sax solo, and the kind of punchy, contagious chorus you just have to sing along with at the top of your lungs. It’s a great summation of Mendes’s decades of crossover appeal, a danceable hit for the early ’80s that sounds relevant for the era while still retaining the DNA of Mendes’s Brazilian musical roots.

Check out all of Pizzulo’s dorky-yet-sincere charisma in a pair of YouTube performances: first, this lip-sync performance from 1980s pop music institution Solid Gold, a syndicated weekly TV series that ran from 1980 to 1988 and copied the British Top of the Pops formula: a troupe of “Solid Gold dancers” doing interpretive dance routines to the Top 40 hits of the day, sometimes accompanied by the actual artists. For some reason, the Solid Gold formula seems to really work with Pizzulo, Mendes, and the rest of the band (especially that sax solo); maybe it’s the slightly-sleazy lyrical content of “Alibis” that lends itself well to having a group of aerobicized dancers writhing around. In this live performance from Tokyo on Mendes’s 1984 world tour, Pizzulo gets to showcase his actual pipes and stage presence (as well as a truly mystifying 1980s outfit featuring a white necktie tied around his bare neck, with a red shirt open to the fourth button). —Grasso

“Stay” by André Cymone

Gents, you know of my abiding love for the work of André Cymone. He toured as a bass player with Prince (pre-1999) before moving on to a solo career initially spanning three LPs: Livin’ in the New Wave (1982), Survivin’ in the 80s (1983), and AC (1985). I love them all to death, especially the first two. If I have to choose one song, it’s the sublime “Stay,” from his second album. The synths are sublime, the vocals are sublime, it’s sexy, it’s sleek—the goddamn song is sublime. If it’s not on your “best of” ’80s comp, then your “best of” ’80s comp needs a critical update. “Don’t Let the Future (Come Down on You),” from the same album, is my second favorite track.

Look, I know the dude tosses off some wannabe Prince tunes, and tends to emulate the master’s vocals, but he does have his own sound and his own unwavering charisma. He’s legit. Listen for yourself. —Roberts

“Get It On” by Spence

I hate the derision implicit in the concept of the ‘one-hit wonder’. That myopic failure to recognize just how exhilarating it is when an artist produces something beautiful, something that represents their unique personal aesthetic, and then fucks off (by choice or otherwise) without spending the next decade or so sullying their creation via increasingly shit iterations—which, in the roiling ocean of derivative turds that constitutes much of pop music, is usually the case. To be honest, I wish there were more one-hit wonders: free of the disheartening associations that mount up as their creators gradually reveal the limits of their vision, talents, and personalities, they often remain fresher and more idiosyncratic than their less transitory peers.

Even though I don’t know whether it actually was a hit anywhere outside Holland’s top 40, Spence’s Get It On is that kind of thing. Spence was Dutch guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Henk Braaf, who had spent part of the ’70s learning his chops as a session musician and touring Europe with various Dutch acts. After playing his demos to top Dutch producers Richard de Bois and Peter van Asten, he released Get It On in 1983. From the cluck-clucking guitar and startling gunshot and freight train samples that launch it, accompanied by commandingly heavy bassline, lurching rhythm, video game percussion, and bewildering lyrics, Get It On is unforgettable.

If just listening to the song itself doesn’t grab your mind by the throat, try watching what remains of it being performed on TV,  where it plays like a surrealist channeling of ’80s tropes: clad in his trademark Back to the Future-preempting sleeveless waistcoat, behind him a backdrop of body-poppers who robot and wave like alien fauna amidst gusts of otherworldly dry ice, Spence is weirdly majestic. Everything about him—his movements, his expressions, his posture—are so alien to the ordinary praxis for this kind of thing and yet so obviously part of a developed personal vision, that they command your attention totally.

A long-distance fever dream of what was happening in American music at the time, Get It On is another of those “telephone” artifacts where some aspect of a foreign culture is filtered through an artist’s partial understanding of, or access to, it, producing—perhaps accidentally—something entirely unique. It’s so close to what’s familiar and at the same time so strange that you will not be able to stop listening. —McKenna

“Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne

Another artist who made a shift to a new style during the ’80s was Jackson Browne. Part of the Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene, Browne was a prolific singer-songwriter in the ’70s, penning hits for a number of artists (including for Nico’s solo debut and the Eagles). Browne joined a scene that combined roots rock and a well-produced industry sensibility that dominated the pop charts in the 1970s. Artists like Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Browne himself found their greatest success during that decade, but, by 1980, music had changed. The Eagles had split up, Linda Ronstadt was on Broadway, and the Laurel Canyon folk-rock sound was fast being supplanted by new wave and post-punk. How could artists like Browne survive? Ironically, by going back into their collective past to mine the rapidly-growing Boomer market for musical nostalgia.

The surprise hit “Somebody’s Baby” (memorably used in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High when Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character loses her virginity to an older man) helped Browne bounce back from the disappointing reviews and sales for his 1980 album Hold Out. The track’s guitar rock, crossed with a slightly old-fashioned pop melody, laid the groundwork for the formula Browne would use on his next album.

1983’s Lawyers in Love solidified Browne’s turn into nostalgia-tinged pop. Songs like the title track and “Tender Is The Night” slyly evoke and repurpose musical motifs from Boomers’ childhoods and teen years. The lead and title single, though, also happens to be a perfect time capsule of early ’80s Baby Boomer political, social, and cultural concerns. Browne wryly observes a country locked onto their televisions “in their designer jeans,” bewildered by the news coming in via satellite from every corner of the globe. Aliens visit America only to find us ignoring them in favor of “eating from TV trays/tuned into Happy Days.” The very idea of wild “lawyers in love” calling to each other Tarzan-like through the wilderness not only reverberates with Baby Boomer pop culture nostalgia (the yell itself seems to evoke the classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“), but seems to embody the alienation that Browne sees in a generation who’d lost its idealism and turned to self-satisfaction and chasing money. (Browne’s own activism remained strong throughout the ’70s and ’80s, as he cut songs and participated in protests against nuclear power and US policy in Central America.)

The music video for “Lawyers in Love” has that trademark early-’80s literality to it: the lyrics are all acted out for maximum clarity, but it’s a neat little piece of minimalist storytelling nonetheless. Browne acts as a TV-addicted schlub in a white t-shirt as well as the titular “lawyer in love” who not only gets to act on his own network drama, but also be one of the first to colonize the empty Soviet Union (doing a Busby Berkeley-esque dance routine in Red Square with a bunch of fellow three-piece-suit-clad capitalists over the outro). The science fiction overtones of the video had a profound effect on young MTV-watching me, and it stands as one of those weird artifacts of my own youth that still has a chilling, hauntological effect on me. So much of “Lawyers in Love,” both the song and the video, is unwittingly prescient: the cover of the album and the video both feature Browne in his best yuppie lawyer-wear, paddling a Mercedes down a flooded New York City street-turned-canal. The idea of capitalist America occupying a vacant Soviet Union as a “vacationland” very nicely previews how the victorious US treated the people of the former Soviet Union at “the end of history,” a mere eight years away. The best speculative art looks at present-day patterns and extrapolates from there, and Jackson Browne’s highly attuned, ironic political sensibilities seemed to predict our current hypercapitalist science fiction landscape in a quick little four-minute pop song. —Grasso

8 thoughts on ““So Perfect in Every Way”: Six Unsung Pop Songs from the 1980s

  1. Ahh yes, Looker. An underrated song and a fairly forgotten film. I saw the movie multiple times as a kid in about 1982 when we first got cable. HBO at that time would often replay its latest films multiple times a day and I was always ready to watch it again because I liked the effects and I was fascinated with the looker gun.

    I even played “Looker” with friends by pretending an electronic sound gun was the looker gun. If you had the gun and blasted your friend they had to freeze for 20 seconds (sometimes resulting in a wedgie or wet willy).
    Also the finale of Looker (1981) was hilarious to me. I remember laughing out loud when the hologram children said, “Ah mom, do we have to have the same old thing again?” over a dead guy on the table. The Spurt Toothpaste death scene is also pretty funny.

    scene at 2:05

  2. Pingback: All Graphite and Glitter: ‘Down the Rhodes: The Fender Rhodes Story’

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