(Rock Steady, Sept. 8, 1983)
No, I’m not talking about the gizmos that you go to for a can of soda. I’m talking about the performers who turn out pop music with the consistency of machines.
Some of the elitists and snobs out there may be tuning out and turning up their noses already, but hold on a minute. Popularity, in the sense of “pop” used above, no more makes a record bad then does the fact that millions like a tune make it good. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder in this case, and tastes in rock and pop are varied — even within individuals. (I have a brother, for instance, who is wild about John Denver — and just as wild about John Cougar.)
I have my tastes, and you have yours — but there are musicians who have a flare for knowing what makes people snap their fingers, tap their feet, turn up the radio and buy the records. Let’s look at a few of them, my picks for the “Hit Machine” awards.
Hall and Oates — The top of the list. They groped around briefly after their early ’70s blue-eyed soul classic, “She’s Gone,” but haven’t missed in the last six or seven years. They may not be enshrined in the same lyricists’ niche as Lennon and McCartney, but every release is catchy, sticks with you and fits into that archetypical three-minute AM radio format that is still the backbone of popular music.
Fleetwood Mac — Virtually ever since this group evolved from the original blues band combination into the present Christine McVie-Stevie Nicks-Lindsay Buckingham show, it has been turning out hits; that includes the Bob Welch era (“Hypnotized” and “Bare Trees”). The present group has been one of the most productive pop machines; they even got away with “Tusk,” which sounded like pop music for African pygmies. And Buckingham and Nicks have continued that success in their solo efforts.
The Police — Not only are they one of the best new bands of the last five years, they seem well tuned in to the characteristics mentioned above. From “Roxanne” to “Goo Goo,” etc., they turned out a series of those three-minute miracles, splicing reggae into the tradition as well. They kind of missed a beat or two last year (“Every Little Thing She Does” and “Spirits in the Material World” were a little clumsy), but seem to be back on track with their latest single. Their biggest shortcoming? Insufficient depth in the songwriting corps; once you get past the single hits, the rest of their albums suffer by comparison.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — Petty is another latecomer who hit with his feet moving. Right from the start he showed he knew what a good hook and the right beat could do — and he’s got a knack for lyrics too: “You got lucky, babe, when I found you...” is just one example.
John Cougar — Despite the bad boy image he peddles, John’s forte is pop singles. He ran off a string of hits, including “Not Even Done with the Night” and a couple before and after, that were nifty: quick, clean and crisp, the sort of stuff you find yourself waiting for on the radio the next time it comes around. Then he got serious: “Jack and Diane” and “Hand to Hold on To” were overdone and underdone, respectively, in that respect. But he seems to have a good enough grasp on the formula that I expect he’ll come back.
Supertramp — Like the ballplayer who can also run, field and throw, these guys have got more than just hits going for them. From “Dreamer” down to “It’s Raining Again,” their batting streak runs unbroken; the stuff may be a little fluffy, but it’s catchy, upbeat music. Their extra dimension comes on the albums; once you get past things like “Give a Little Bit,” you find gems like “Even in the Quietest Moments.”
There are others who deserve mention, even if not in the same breath with the above groups, such as The Little River Band (although they seem to have lost a little of their punch) and Linda Ronstadt (but she doesn’t write her own material, and wanders through too many musical styles). Men at Work will likely find its way on to the list.
But remember — having one gold record after another doesn’t guarantee inclusion on the “Pop Machine” list. Then there are individuals and bands who have hit after hit but have to be eliminated on other grounds. While the bands mentioned above are tuned into a formula, Barry Manilow, for instance, is in a straight jacket. (His songs are so predictable that when he tries to change the pace, like on “Copa Cabana” or his latest, he comes off even worse than the usual.)
As I said at the start, some people look down on “popular” music; they tend to look for obscure acts, thinking that quality and quantity are mutually exclusive. If that were really the case, we would never have had the Beatles, Chuck Berry or Stevie Wonder. There is a definite talent involved in writing a three-minute rock song, and it takes a talent — possessed by not many — to catch the public ear and imagination.