Music Article

A Thrilling Era

How do 23-year-old hits by Michael Jackson, Huey Lewis, and Cyndi Lauper hold up today? Let's give 'em another listen

Michael Jackson in the ''Thriller'' video
Image credit: Michael Jackson: Everett Collection
Michael Jackson in the ''Thriller'' video

This week in '84: Rating the top 10 hits

A big hello from the friendly skies, Flashbackers! I'm writing this countdown on a plane from New York to Los Angeles, where I'm gonna put on my pretty dress and ask other girls about their pretty dresses on Oscar night, and...

''But Whitney!'' I hear you interrupting. ''Oscar night was like a week ago! Why are we just reading this Chart Flashback now? And, on a side note, isn't there someone more qualified to cover fashion at your magazine, considering the fact that all you wear are black hooded sweatshirts and an ever-increasing number of baseball tees?''

Well, on the second part, yeah, I'm not sure how I keep winding up on red carpets, but for some twisted reason I rather enjoy the chaos, so hush. Now, as to the first part of that very good question:

Yes. Oscar night was like a week ago. You are just reading this Chart Flashback now because at some point after Christmas, it was suggested to me that we put C.F. into the actual print magazine... and due to my schedule (which has consisted largely of eating granola bars on a variety of Delta Airlines flights), I'm just getting around to doing that now. But in order to do that, I've got to write the chart two weeks before it's actually going to run. So here I am, writing the future from the past. Or the future past from the past past, I guess is more accurate. Wait. I'm writing about the past in the past but it will appear in the future. There ya go.

Anyway. So hi. I'm on a plane. That means this will not only (hopefully) be the first Chart Flashback in the print magazine, it'll also be the first one which I write from memory, completely unassisted by the magic of the Internet. (Dear Delta: How long until we get wireless on planes?) I'll go back later and put YouTube links in, if you're wondering where those came from. For now, though, it's just me, the iTunes of these songs, and 36,000 feet of empty air between us and Amarillo. Hope this works.

(PS: First time here? Like all self-respecting web products, we've got a FAQ. Better read it this week for sure — I think I see some Huey Lewis coming up.)

Billboard's Top 10 for the week ending March 3, 1984

10. ''I Want A New Drug,'' Huey Lewis and the News
We all knew he'd eventually be back on the chart and we'd be faced with this question: Will I favor this song, as I've threatened, with the obligatory Huey Lewis A? Um... do bears bear? Do bees bee? I love this song! I love it because of Huey's gritty little voice, and because of the great Tower of Power horns, and because it is most assuredly not the Ghostbusters theme song, no matter how much Ray Parker Jr. wished it could be. (Speaking of plagiarism lawsuits: Anyone else hear the suspiciously Hendrixian guitar solo about 4:18 in? Just sayin'.) But mostly I love this song because when I was a kid and Nancy Reagan was all up in my face with her ''Just Say No'' crap, I had Huey there telling me that, in fact, part of being an adult was getting all coked up and going out and having a lot of sex, and the only way to stop doing that was to fall in love with one of the people with whom you were having all the sex. Maybe there's something wrong with that being the message a 9-year-old takes away from what is inherently just a cheesy metaphor in a cheesy song, but I don't know — something about Huey plunging his face into the sink full of ice water spoke to me. A friend of mine recently told me that we can choose to live ''clean'' or live ''dirty,'' and that a lot of life is caught between those two options. I think when I heard this song, I chose dirty. Granted, it was dirty on a Huey Lewis level, which means it was just kind of a little dingy, like someone spilled beer on it... but that's better than nothing. A

9. ''Let the Music Play,'' Shannon
Wow. No Retrigue here — I haven't heard this song in years. (Retrigue, for the uninitiated, is the state of having heard an '80s song so many times that all the novelty has been wrung from its retro rag. See: ''Safety Dance''; ''Take On Me''; ''Karma Chameleon.'') How dramatic is the wonder of Shannon's one hit: The couple! The music! The groove! The daaaance! And now he's with some-bo-dy new! Oh, it's too, too terrible! Her voice — kind of pitchy, yet smoky and rich with experience — is well-suited to this sort of thing, though it mostly just bleats out plot points regarding who's standing where on the dance floor. The real star of the show is the backing track, a spicy melangé of sampled whip cracks, heavily processed drums, and some sort of squeaky keyboard noise that reminds me a little of the sound Judge Doom made in Roger Rabbit when they doused him with the dip. I find it all quite festive. Too bad Gloria Estefan was having none of it, and clearly shoved Shannon in a box for the remainder of the decade. I bet there was some groovy dancing going on in that box, though. B

[Completely Un-Chart-Flashback-Related Note: There is a man standing in the aisle next to me. I do not know why. It as though he has forgotten why he is here, or where ''here'' is in the first place. He keeps taking one step towards the lavatory and one step back towards where I can only assume his seat is waiting... and he can't seem to figure out where to go. It's creeping me out. Damn you, aisle seat.]

8. ''Wrapped Around Your Finger,'' The Police
Hang on, I'm trying to isolate the notes in here that Sting won't be able to hit on the upcoming reunion tour... What? If he can't hit the ''Put on the red light'' in ''Roxanne,'' what hope do the rest of the notes have? Sigh. Luckily, this track is of slightly later-vintaged Synchronicity Police, so he'd toned it down a little, but not by much. Guide for concertgoers: I'd be especially concerned about the ''edge'' in ''I have only come here seeking knowledge,'' as well as the high harmonies in the chorus. And, tangentially, I fear for ''So Lonely.'' But seriously, folks, back to the song as it was (not as it will be: butchered, undoubtedly, by rampant greed). Well, I think I feel bad about the grade I'm going to give this, especially seeing how I gave Huey Lewis his obligatory A up there and kind of broke the curve. Let's just come right out and say it: Despite the fact that Gordon manages to work the Greek history pop-quiz ''Scylla and Charybdis'' into the first verse — a feat of vocabulary unrivaled for almost a decade until Live managed to get ''placenta'' into ''Lightning Crashes'' — I think there's a lot that's boring here. The pace is slow, the melody repetitive and sort of droning, and the song doesn't particularly build to anything. It's weird, because I'd argue that the songs on Synchronicity are this band's best, not just musically, but in terms of composition and evoking a world unto themselves (regular readers of this column are familiar with my Loch Ness Monster/ ''Synchronicity II'' fixation) — and this one just doesn't do it for me. Still, it is the Police, so they're starting out with bonus points. B+

7. ''Somebody's Watching Me,'' Rockwell
''I'm just an average man / with an average life... '' No you're not, dude — you're Motown founder Berry Gordy's son, and nepotism is nothing to joke about. Oh, sure, you got your record contract without telling your dad; I'm sure that went down exactly the same way Tori Spelling got her 90210 gig in ''secret,'' too. Sheesh. Think of all the other young men and women out there who had dreams of one-hit wonderism but never got the chance to create a third-rate Rex-Harrison-style spoken-through novelty song, and tell me, ''Rockwell'': Is that fair? Is that just? You're telling me you're an average guy, but that is Michael Effing Jackson singing the chorus of your song, sir — ain't nuthin' average about that, even if he is (was?) your brother-in-law. I used to love this song, but it hasn't held up. So let me help you isolate the things that are average here: The keyboard line. That IRS joke. Your talent level. Now. Good day, sir.

I said good day! C+

6. ''Karma Chameleon,'' Culture Club
Uh-oh. [Screams in pain.] The Retrigue! It is upon me! Must... shake it... off... Must... do it... for the Flashbackers... [Grunts, wrestles self free, cries out in triumph.] Whew, that was a close one there, kids. So, yeah! Culture Club. Good ol' Boy George. You know, I've never thought about it very closely before, but maybe lovin' would be easy if your colors would light my dreams. Gag. Anyway, my sister loved this song lots and lots when we were kids. I used to make fun of her for that — that and her library-sized collection of Baby-sitters Club and Sweet Valley High books that I would sneak in and read when no one else was home — but she was undeterred, and when my mom took us to Sound Warehouse to buy our very first cassette tapes, my sister selected a copy of Colour By Numbers, and proceeded to play this song all day, every day, until she discovered Debbie Gibson and moved on to a much darker place. Me, I was already in a different kind of dark place, and so the hoppy-skippy beat and friendly-time harmonica here have always driven me bonkers, but today, sitting on this plane, listening to Boy George on repeat while people use my headrest as a punching bag on their way to the bathroom, I am trying very hard to appreciate the songcraft of it all. Maybe it's because I just went to go see Music and Lyrics, but all of a sudden I am realizing that while it is very easy to write a cheesy pop song — even the plant waterer can do it! — it is in fact very difficult to pen something that's truly memorable. And I do think there's a difference between a memorable song and an insidious one. Maybe it's the pleasant oooohing harmonies in the background, but I'm inclined to refer to this song as ''memorable'' from here on out. Note I did not say good. Just ''memorable.'' B

5. ''Nobody Told Me,'' John Lennon
Part of me wants to make this the first song ever opened up to the public for grading here on Chart Flashback, because honestly, I cannot decide what I think about it. I don't remember it much from childhood, so there are no lingering associations or unfair biases to contend with. And while I love the Beatles as much as the next guy, I wasn't raised in a house with Abbey Road on repeat (like I know many of you were), so I'm not about to get belligerent about this being a John Lennon song because he is my own personal Jesus or anything. Frankly, I think part of the problem is that this tune's so average in so many ways that it's hard not to just take it note by note, the same way I'd look at any other average song. So let's do that, I suppose. Okay: I like the way it starts, with the spunky count-off, because it reminds me of Springsteen (''Bobby Jean,'' maybe?), and any time you can remind me of Springsteen is good. I think the verses are kind of annoying hippie-dippy claptrap, and I find John's voice to be very thin and noncommittal. But then the chorus comes, with its rattling guitar and bemused, frustrated message — he's right, no one did tell him there would be days like these, and they were and continue to be quite strange — and things pick up. Plus, the tossed-off tag at the end (''most peculiar, mama'') gives it character. But at the same time it's an awfully silly little song to go down in history as Lennon's last Top 10 solo ditty. Sometimes maybe it's better to let these posthumous dogs lie. Ugh. I don't know. I'm going with a B-. You? Leave it in the comments.

4. ''Thriller,'' Michael Jackson
My sister may have purchased an annoying flavor of the month, but when my mom took us to Sound Warehouse to buy our first cassette tapes, I knew exactly where I was headed: Thriller would be mine. Hard to say where my fascination with Michael Jackson began (I mean, sure, everyone was fascinated by Michael Jackson at this point in time, but I'm trying to isolate it for your benefit) — I do have very clear memories of knowing every single word to ''Beat It'' after just a few listens on the radio, as well as immediately then learning every word to Weird Al's ''Eat It,'' meaning that my love for those two giants of the music industry began almost simultaneously, chicken/egg style. Did I love ''Beat It'' because I loved the funny parody version? Or did I love the parody because how can you not love something set to ''Beat It'''s tune, regardless of the lyrics? (I'm sure Jacko, were he still able to form a cogent thought beyond ''Blanket!'' or ''Funny monkey!'' would be thrilled to hear that his kabillion-selling artistic triumph is forever equated in my mind with the man who also, if I am not mistaken, once parodied Billy Ray Cyrus.) In any case, this is not supposed to be about ''Beat It,'' but rather the title track off the first cassette I ever owned — this epic, monstrously creative, improbably ridiculous song that so captured the imagination of the world that we willingly withstood a 12-minute video requiring Michael Jackson to act. This song should have failed in every possible way — wolf howls! geezer voiceovers! spook whistles! Michael Jackson promising to protect us! — but instead it became the most ginormous hit in the history of the universe, off an album whose reported worldwide sales record will never be touched. That's right: Jacko is the Nolan Ryan of album sales. And now, in order to vault this over Huey Lewis (wow, I really screwed up my system right off the bat this week, didn't I?): A+

3. ''Girls Just Want To Have Fun,'' Cyndi Lauper
Aw, man, this list is making me miss MTV. (What? MTV is still around? Surely you jest.) So here we've got Cyndi doing what she does best: Making me feel empowered, and also cute and frilly. You know, I spent many a year wandering around the Lillith Fairgrounds, and the older I get, the more I wonder: Why does female empowerment so often have to be accompanied by anger and unattractive clothing, Indigo Girls? Why can't we want to wear taffeta skirts and paint our nails and slap on a little too much blue mascara? Why can't you take a page out of Cyndi's unusual handbook and replace those flannel shirts with some lace bustiers? You're not doing it to be objectified, you're doing it for you! You're doing it because playing dress-up is more fun than slapping on the same black hooded sweatshirt day in and day out! Oh, sure, when you're spending 30 minutes a day jamming your arm full of jelly bracelets from wrist to elbow, that's time that may be better spent, but whatevs! Girls just wanna have fun! What was my point? Oh yes! Cyndi Lauper is awesome, and this song remains her best (although if someone wanted to put up an argument for that Goonies theme, I'd get your back). From the way she uses her Minnie Mouse voice as percussion to the genius simplicity of ''Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world / I want to be the one who walks in the sun,'' there never will be a better encapsulation of how it feels to all of a sudden realize that, holy crap, we chicks might actually have a good thing going here. A

2. ''99 Luftballons,'' Nena
I will forever adore this song, for two reasons: 1) Its place during the body-disposal climax of Grosse Pointe Blank (''Take care of yourself, Ken. Thank you for the pen.''), which I continue to believe is the most underrated movie of all time, and 2) the four-hour argument I had with a couple of friends one night in a trailer on the side of the highway in Arkansas regarding who, exactly, sang this thing, and if the English version was a cover or a remake. We'd had some whiskey at the time, and were also probably watching a wakeboarding video with the sound off, and let's face it, that wasn't the healthiest year of my life, but I remember that as being a very funny argument. All that aside, unfortunately, I have just learned that listening to ''99 Luftballons'' on repeat is very detrimental to your mental health. It seems like a fun party song on the outside — cute girl singer! punky litttle beat! ballons! — but I think the hidden post-apocalyptic messages in the German are making me crazy. Schnell! B

PS: Got a spare 99 luftcents? Head over to iTunes and download Nena's half-studio, half-live 2003 version, which sounds like the weirdly compelling four-way stop of Kelly Clarkson, Depeche Mode, the Cranberries, and that Lisa Loeb song ''How'' off the Twister soundtrack. At least two minutes too long, but so bizarre it's worth it.

1. ''Jump,'' Van Halen
Whether you think this song represented the greatest confluence of technically brilliant guitar skills and hooky songcraft in pop-metal history, or simply the beginning of the end for a band who chose selling out to buy more spandex over their responsibilities to rock as an art form, you cannot ignore three facts: 1) Eddie's riffs are in no way compromised by the bubblegum vibe; in fact, that stuff he does in the bridge — the battle between harmonics and bass, the lightning speed, the soaring final note — defined his sound for my entire generation. Or at least me. 2) David Lee Roth was the greatest frontman this band ever had, no matter what Sammy Hagar may try and tell you in between Jager bombs. (Did somebody say Twister soundtrack?) 3) If you grew up in the '80s, your piano repertoire consisted, at a bare minimum, of that thing you play with your knuckles and the 11 chords that begin this song: The best opening synth line of all time. Too bad you won't be hearing it live any time soon. A-

Originally posted Mar 01, 2007 Published in issue #924 Mar 09, 2007 Order article reprints
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