Thursday, August 29, 2013

M*A*S*H, Michael Jackson, and Kraftwerk (??) AKA Songs From The '70s That Became UK #1 Hits In The '80s

The United Kingdom, as I mentioned earlier, is much smaller than the United States, at least in terms of geographical size - if not in spirit. The point is, imagine a song suddenly becoming popular in Texas. Probably happens all the time. Maybe some local DJ suddenly hears "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" for the first time in his life, and decides to play the hell out of it. But it would never hit #1. You know why? Because the rest of the country would sit there and say, "Texas, what the fuck?"

Well, imagine a country where local DJs revived old, obscure singles, but there was no one else around to say, "Britain, What the fuck?"

While filming M*A*S*H in 1970, director Robert Altman realized he needed a theme song:
Robert Altman had two stipulations about the song for Mandel; first, it had to be called "Suicide is Painless", secondly, it had to be the "stupidest song ever written". Altman tried to write the lyrics himself, but found that it was too difficult for his 45-year-old brain to write "stupid enough". Instead he gave the task to his 14-year-old-son, Michael, who apparently wrote the lyrics in five minutes ... During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the 1980s, Robert Altman said that his son had earned more than a million US dollars for having co-written the song while he only made US$70,000 for having directed the movie.
Fast-forward ten years. I'm sure the M*A*S*H TV show was still popular in May 1980, but why did "Suicide Is Painless" suddenly top the UK charts at that precise moment? According to Wikipedia, it was "championed by BBC Radio 1 DJ Noel Edmonds." That's it? I don't even think something particularly unusual took place in relation to either the TV show or the film at that time. The final episode, which once held the record for most watched television program in U.S. history, didn't even air until 1983. And the version of the song in the TV show was instrumental.

I mean, it's a lovely song and everything, but it oozes early '70s California singer-songwriter folkiness and I can't imagine what it must have sounded like on UK radio sandwiched between "Call Me" and "Xanadu." Sure, England, whatever. Why didn't some DJ just champion the Brady Bunch theme while they were at it? Three's Company?

After the massive success of Off The Wall, Michael Jackson's little old record company, Motown, decided to re-release some Michael Jackson solo song from 1975 that nobody really cared about the first time around. But maybe the British public thought, "What's this? A new Michael Jackson song? Even though it kind of sounds seven years old? Let's make it number one!" At least American audiences were a little more savvy; the song only peaked at #55 over here.

Kraftwerk were no strangers to fluke Top 40 hits. The last thing they ever expected was for their 22-minute, pioneering electronica track "Autobahn" to peak (as a single edit) at #25 in the U.S. and #11 in the UK. But at least "Autobahn" became a hit shortly after the band released it. When "The Model" appeared on The Man-Machine in 1978, well, big whoop. Somehow or other it ended up as the B-Side to 1981's "Computer Love," some random BBC DJ probably thought it was the bee's knees, and it shot to #1.

Of course, Kraftwerk were so "ahead of their time" that a Kraftwerk song from 1978 probably didn't sound all that different from a Human League or a Soft Cell song from 1982. Granted, I know their first language was not English, but these lyrics make ABBA sound like Elvis Costello:
She's a model and she's looking good
I'd like to take her home, that's understood
She plays hard to get, she smiles from time to time
It only takes a camera to change her mind

She's going out tonight but drinking just champagne
And she has been checking nearly all the men
She's playing her game and you can hear them say
She is looking good, for beauty we will pay

She's posing for consumer products now and then
For every camera she gives the best she can
I saw her on the cover of a magazine
Now she's a big success, I want to meet her again
All right, who was it? Was it Ralf? Or maybe it was Karl? Whoever was responsible, let me start by pointing out a couple of things: "champagne" does not rhyme with "men," and "magazine" does not rhyme with "again." Plus, you need to add an "out" between "checking" and "nearly"; no one "checks men." And maybe it's just me, but why does it feel like they kept running out of words in the middle of their lines, so they just threw a comma in there, tried to add an extra sentence, and hoped no one would notice? "'She's a model and she's looking good/I'd like to take her home' ... crap, that's not enough words, I need something else ... ah, what rhymes with good?"

No comments: