Handicapping the Summer Song of 1979 (And Today)
I have place memories for a lot of songs, and I definitely have one for “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor Doctor)” by Robert Palmer.
It was the summer after senior year — probably right around this time. My high-school buddy Matt and I were driving back to Washington, D.C., from Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., exciting not just for the amusement park but because I was 16 and they were still lax about policing the free beer at brewery tours.
I’m pretty sure that I’d heard “Bad Case of Loving You” already, but not on the radio. I knew WRVQ (Q94) Richmond, Va., often ahead of WPGC on well-chosen new music, was playing it. It came on just as we were whipping around the curves on the convoluted interchange of I-64 and I-95. Maybe that’s not something that you’d choose to remember fondly, but for a minute, it was like being in a car commercial. “Wow, that’s a really great song,” said Matt.
“Bad Case of Loving You” was one of the best-chosen covers of all time (of a Moon Martin song, by the way) by an artist who could write his own material, but still chose to demonstrate his own good taste with each album. (The Rod Stewart version of “Some Guys Have All the Luck” is Palmer’s arrangement of a minor ‘70s R&B hit.) “Bad Case” has never been overplayed enough for me to burn out on it, but I’ve never come close.
And here’s the thing that occurred to me when I heard it on the radio last night. “Bad Case” was a significant and (mostly) enduring hit. It provided me with a perfect summer-song memory. But in 1979, there was never any question of it being the Song of Summer. If I were writing this article in late July, that battle would probably have been between the Knack, “My Sharona,” and Chic, “Good Times.” Anita Ward, “Ring My Bell,” might have led then for sheer unavoidability, but it had definitely moved from delightful to dismaying at that point.
These days, “My Sharona” vs. “Good Times” is cast as disco vs. the reassertion of rock ‘n’ roll, but at age 16 I didn’t think I had to choose. Steve Dahl’s “Disco Demolition” at WLUP Chicago was something I read about in the trades, but it hadn’t yet been responsible for taking down careers. When “Good Times” gave way to “My Forbidden Lover,” Chic’s first stiff, I just thought they’d quickly reached self-parody, until the pattern became clear over the next year.
There were disco songs I didn’t like in 1979, mostly by bandwagon jumpers like Barbra Streisand and Wings (who switched styles and continued to have careers in ways difficult for, say, Sister Sledge). There was plenty of yacht rock — Atlanta Rhythm Section, “Do It or Die”; Eddie Rabbitt, “Suspicions”; Robert John, “Sad Eyes.” The latter has perhaps one of the most morally reprehensible lyrics ever. (“I’m done cheating with you. For God’s sake, do leave quietly.”) But wimpy pop hadn’t yet taken over the radio, and those songs couldn’t do much harm individually.
If the summer song hadn’t been “Good Times” or “My Sharona,” it might have been Donna Summer, “Bad Girls”; Electric Light Orchestra, “Don’t Bring Me Down”; the Cars, “Let’s Go”; Cheap Trick, “I Want You to Want Me” (which by July just played like a power pop ramp-up to “Sharona”); Earth, Wind & Fire & the Emotions, “Boogie Wonderland,” or, in the last few weeks, Michael Jackson, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”
And if those songs hadn’t materialized, it could have been McFadden & Whitehead, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”; John Stewart, “Gold”; Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”; Nick Lowe, “Cruel to Be Kind”; Sniff & the Tears, “Drivers’ Seat”; Raydio, “You Can’t Change That”; Bonnie Pointer, “Heaven Must Have Sent You”; Patrick Hernandez, “Born to Be Alive.”
They weren’t in the running for long, but I would have also included Kiss, “I Was Made for Loving You” (exempted from my contempt for bandwagon jumping by its sheer ferocity) and Abba, “Does Your Mother Know,” which played like the song they would have written for the Grease soundtrack.
I haven’t gotten into favorite summer of ’79 stiffs because there’s no need. But if you listened to R&B that summer, there was also the Jones Girls’ “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else” and Mass Production, “Firecracker,” which should have done better just by pandering to summer. The songs that populated the disco chart that summer without crossing over would be an article unto themselves, but start with Jackie Moore, “This Time Baby” (later a mid-‘90s staple of the revived WKTU New York), or Rozalin Woods, “Whatcha Gonna Do About It.”
For a long time, I argued for 1980 as a watershed year for pop music — even if much of what was great couldn’t make it past mid-chart in an era of “Little Jeannie” and “All Out of Love.” My former Radio & Records boss and current “ROR” editor Ken Barnes always argued that 1979 was a gold standard. And these were just four months’ worth of hits. And “Rapper’s Delight” was still a few weeks away by Labor Day.
There will definitely be a Song of Summer 2018 that we can feel good about. Ariana Grande, “No Tears Left to Cry,” moved steadily to No. 1. I like it for tempo and for its subtext about Manchester, but for many people, it seems not to fit the narrative that medium-weight female pop is over. That’s okay, I’m fine with Cardi B, “I Like It,” too, and yes, it is her summer. And Grande’s initial competition, Calvin Harris, “One Kiss,” is still growing steadily. I like Tiesto & Dzeko, “Jackie Chan,” as a left-field entrant, and because uptempo Post Malone is even better than “Better Now.”
What there won’t be is depth. Turns out that the best Summer Song field in a few years doesn’t mean as much given the general malaise of Top 40 music. I had a lot of dismayed discussions at Conclave in Minneapolis last week, and nobody said, “But the song of summer field is good.” In 1979, most of these dozens of enduring singles didn’t become Song of the Summer candidates, because when there was no dearth of tempo, merely having tempo alone wasn’t enough to put you in the running.