Monday, February 13, 2006

Top 5: It's a Miracle

It might be the unlikeliest comeback since the Resurrection: On the latest Billboard album chart, Number One belongs to Barry Manilow. The Greatest Songs of the Fifties is his version of the standards formula that has resulted in huge hits for Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, and others, and moved 156,000 copies in its first week of release. (The album is produced by Clive Davis, who guided Manilow's career at Arista Records in the 70s, and who has produced Stewart's Great American Songbook series.) Let's note this achievement with five more memorable Manilow moments.

5. The last time. Manilow last topped the charts in 1977 with Barry Manilow Live. Its two most famous tunes include the lone single, "Daybreak," which is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Manilow comes across so sugary and upbeat that it's almost creepy, for one thing. The backup singing group, Lady Flash, who actually had a hit record of their own on the "strength" of their appearance here, is way too funky for a song so terminally white. (There are several other reasons to hate on "Daybreak," but I haven't got that kind of space here.) The other notable tune on Live is "A Very Strange Medley (V.S.M)," on which Manilow performs the famous commercial jingles he's written. Fun for fans, interesting exercise in nostalgia for everybody else, and the sort of product placement corporate marketers dream of making today but can't.

4. The first time. The Greatest Songs of the Fifties is not the first time Manilow has plundered the past for material. Live includes a big-band medley that's capped off by "Bandstand Boogie," the American Bandstand theme. The 1980 single "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" had the feel of something Fred Astaire might have recorded in the 40s. Manilow's 1984 album 2:00AM Paradise Cafe was an attempt to do Mel Torme-style jazz vocals; 1987's Swing Street was a swing album made up mostly of original tunes. By the 1990s, Manilow was covering Broadway and swing-era standards regularly. Clearly, however, the moment for that kind of thing to break through big hadn't arrived until now.

3. "It's a Miracle." Even during the mid-70s, not exactly a hard-rockin' era, Manilow music was mighty wimpy. Most of his hits unfolded the same way--quiet opening on piano, verse, chorus, verse, big emotional buildup bringing in the orchestra, chorus again, and fade out as the string section reprises the melody. Which is why "It's a Miracle," Manilow's second Top-40 hit (1975), jumps out of his catalog today. Not as formulaic as the majority of his hits, "It's a Miracle" was a nod to mainstream Top-40 he should have tried to repeat, although he never did.

2. Ecch ptui. It was sometime in the late 80s that Manilow's name became synonymous with 70s dreck. Maybe it was the TV show Murphy Brown, whose writers adopted Manilow's name as shorthand for everything in pop music that sucked. A more likely explanation is that adult contemporary radio was evolving in the late 80s--rocking harder than it ever had before as the 70s generation came to full adulthood. Whatever the reason, stations began dropping Manilow's bombastic balladry from their libraries, even while other late 70s popsters remained core artists of the format. (The station where I worked in the early 90s got an impassioned letter from a Manilow fan who noticed his absence after we tweaked our format, and demanded that we bring his music back if we didn't want the "thousands" of fans within range of our signal to desert us.) In any event, that it took 10 years for Manilow to become the butt of jokes is a wonder. It's hard to fathom how, even in the 70s, even with the recurrent failures of mass taste that decade was prone to, a record like 1978's "Can't Smile Without You" could make it to Number 3. And "Copacabana," from later that year, might be the single most-reviled record in Manilow's catalog.

1. The most memorable. Apart from "It's a Miracle," there are three records in Manilow's catalog that I don't mind hearing now and then. While they tend to adhere to the formula described above, they rise above the rest of it because they're his most credible adult love songs. In fact, you can view them as three chapters of the same love story. "Even Now" (1978) is the final chapter, in which the singer can't shake the memory of his old love despite having been with someone else for years. It's almost harrowing, if you can forget who we're talking about--the record is a portrait of a man suffering eternal romantic damnation. "Looks Like We Made It" (1977), Manilow's biggest Top-40 hit, is chapter two of the story, in which the old lovers whistle past the graveyard, thinking they're over each other. (It features an actual guitar solo, a rarity on Manilow's records.) The story begins with "Weekend in New England," (1977), in which the memory of one perfect weekend leads to anticipation of the next one--and the unspoken fear that it might never happen again.

We have not heard the last of Barry Manilow, revivalist. Manilow and Clive Davis are already planning a followup to his 1950s album featuring tunes from the 1960s. So be warned before you disrespect Manilow again--his new Number-One album proves that maybe my station's letter-writer was on to something. There really are thousands of his fans still out there.


At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Going the standards route isn't the only way back to the top of the charts... apparently a nice remix will do the trick, too. Just look at Leo Sayer. -- Dave P.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger jabartlett said...

The picture that goes with the story Dave P. linked is classic.

I've been hearing a lot of remixes lately, especially on the bagel shop's backgroudn music. For example, George Benson's "This Masquerade" and Ambrosia's "Biggest Part of Me," both with a light hip-hop backing track. Not unpleasant--although I'm not sure why it's considered an art form, either.


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