I remember when this song came out. It blew my fucking mind.
It’s 1985, and I am in my suburban Chicago bedroom listening to B96 on my stereo. Though I have a few years of pre-Zinn, grade school history behind me, I am not yet politically aware*, but I have seen quite a few episodes of Family Ties, so I have some sense of the Vietnam War having occurred, and there being some controversy over it. And apparently there were hippies involved.
Anyway, I am minding my own business, waiting for Huey Lewis and The News’ “The Power of Love” to come on the radio so I can unpause the tape that’s sitting in the recorder so I can continue my quest to fill an entire Side 1 with 30 minutes of the song on repeat, when this really weird news report, with a beat that sounds like something I heard in Breakin’ comes on the radio. Or maybe it’s a dance song with lyrics that don’t seem to…exist. In any case, there’s some dude who sounds like Max Headroom telling me over and over that the average age of those serving “I-I-I-I-in Vietnam” was 19, and is sounding very funky fresh about it.
And I’m thinking, “Wow, this is the most serious, amazing thing I have ever heard in my life.”
Obviously, I was 10.
I’m sure at some point someone thought this was a pretty revolutionary record to make: a rap song combining break beats with political commentary about a war not ten years removed from history, released only a year after Reagan’s re-election.
That person was an idiot.
First of all, there’s nothing groundbreaking about a white rap song (let’s face it, that’s what this is) on pop radio in 1985, since “Rapture” came out five years earlier. Also, did I mention Breakin’ came out before this? It’s clear that the music here is as fresh as those TV commercials that would tell you about exciting careers in data processing. Worst moment: where there’s a weird scream that’s followed soon after by the cut-rate backup singers rapping about “De-de-de-de-de-de-de-de-de-destruction.”
Plus, the…what? Creator? Co-conspirator? In any case, the composer of this song, Paul Hardcastle, was later forced to share writing credit with Mike Oldfield, as “19” bore a resemblance to the climactic layered melody of his “Tubular Bells” opus.
And all of the commentary in this song was lifted directly from a ABC documentary that turned out to be inaccurate in some respects, but particularly regarding the average of a Vietnam solider (it was more like 23, not 19). Interestingly, the lyrics above mention some additional lyrics that sound even darker than what precedes it, but I’m pretty sure in context that they suck green eggs, too.
So basically, everything about this song is unoriginal or false, which is why it’s not a surprise that Ol’ Cosby Sweater over there went on to produce some lousy smooth/electronic jazz records. What is a surprise is that this song was #1 in the UK for five (!!!) weeks, sold 4 million copies around the world, and won the Ivor Novello award for best song of 1985. Of course, this prestigious award was also given to the Spice Girls. Hardcastle’s bio says “his early recordings sound as fresh today as they did when he recorded them” and he’ll get no argument from me on that point.
After this and the limpness of “The Politics of Dancing,” I’m looking forward to the string of New Romantic and pop-punk songs ahead.
* This would occur shortly thereafter, due to the Iran-Contra scandal. It’s also possible that this song somehow contributed to my political awakening. This kind of scares me.