First, just another quick reminder there’s a NEW Spotify playlist compiling every worst-list entry! Hit the link here and give it a follow if you want to listen along!
As I alluded to in the best list intro, 1980 is not the “real” 80s, both in the annoyingly pedantic literal sense (which I do not care about) and in the more spiritual, zeitgeist-y sense (which I probably care about a bit too much). There are plenty of returning 70s least-favorites on this list and just as many entries that, as bad music so often does, lag behind the times by at least a year or two. Though the seismic shifts in the music landscape affected the worst songs of the decade in more gradual and (mostly) less obvious ways, 1980 still feels like something of a turning point, a final dying gasp of ‘70s kitsch before new, equally pernicious trends begin tightening their grip on the charts. Before we get ready to meet the new boss, let’s see the old boss out with our first worst list of the 80s- On with the show!
#10: Rocky Burnette- Tired of Toein’ the Line
The rockabilly revival of the early ‘80s is likely one of more regrettable “revivals” in the history of modern music. Rockabilly is not, in my opinion, a sound that holds up especially well when removed from the context in which it was originally conceived; there’s just something about almost every instance of the genre from after 1966 or so that seems deeply wrong to me. This revival also just got off to a pretty unimpressive start- not with the arrival of a bold and promising new talent who ignited the charts with hit after hit like Carl Perkins or Elvis Presley, but with a fluke one-hitter who almost immediately slunk away from the pop world, never to return. Rocky Burnette is easily the worst thing about “Tired of Toein’ the Line”. Frankly, the song itself is too bland to even bring enough rockabilly flavor to really offend my anti-rockabilly sensibilities (sensi-billy-ties?). However, Burnette ends every line here in a pained, keening squawk, like someone is giving him a swift kick in the groin every 5 seconds or so, and the effect is… confusing. It should probably go without saying that it doesn’t sound very good, but it isn’t annoying or upsetting so much as just a bit puzzling. What was he going for here? What did he aim to achieve with that particular vocal tic? It doesn’t really do much to add feeling or energy to his performance, nor does it evoke much of the first wave of rock’n’roll. It’s just kind of there: a strange, awkward, embarrassing blemish on a very boring song, trying in vain to hearken back to a sound that should probably have been left well enough alone.
#9: Styx- Babe
In the half-decade after “Lady” broke them big, Styx had a fairly diverse array of hits, including the quite-good “Renegade” in 1979. Sadly, however, 1980 found them right back where they started: with yet another overwrought power ballad titled with a four-letter synonym for “woman”. In a head-to-head I’d probably have to give “Babe” the edge due to some pretty synths and a less irksome vocal performance from Dennis DeYoung, but that margin of victory is awfully slim. For all their cheese and sentimentality, Styx shone most brightly when they gave themselves space to actually rock out a bit, and stumbled hardest when they had to cram all that stadium bombast into a love song that couldn’t bear its own weight. “Babe” just isn’t interesting enough on its own merits to succeed as a straightforward love song, and it isn’t ridiculous enough to get by on camp. It seems simultaneously beholden to a mainstream radio market in a way that hurts its aspirations to prog-rock epicness, and beholden to AOR convention and scope in a way that prevents it from focusing its energy on the bones of the composition, as any good pop love song ought to. And sure, DeYoung is most certainly not my cuppa, but “Come Sail Away” proved he could be palatable in the right circumstances, while “Babe” finds him retreating into many of his worst instincts as a singer, straining to hit notes right at the edge of his none-too-impressive range. At their best, it’s undeniable that Styx had their own ‘thing’ that they could reliably do pretty well, regardless of whether or not I or you personally care for it. Stuff like this reduced them to sounding like a slightly-better Chicago.
#8: Joe Walsh- All Night Long
If nothing else, “All Night Long” is an improvement on “Life’s Been Good”, albeit for no other reason than because I can actually understand why a mainstream rock fan in 1980 might want to listen to it for its entire runtime. Joe Walsh rides a basic-bitch blues rock type thing with enough pizazz that it could conceivably be mindlessly nodded along to on one’s drive home from work, so, y’know, that’s something at least. Still, I’ve spent enough time hammering out 12-bar blueses to know when someone’s phoning it in, and boy is Walsh phoning it in here. Running the one somewhat distinctive guitar lead he brings to the song into the ground, turning in a handful of grade-school rhymes (day/stay, done/fun, song/along, etc) and filling the entire back half of the track with middling, listless solos- it really only manages to rise to the level of “competently executing the basics”. Ultimately, I can’t pretend that being simple and formulaic is anything but a pretty minor offense, but it’s pretty irritating hearing an artist so blatantly cashing in an easy paycheck, and I always find it a shame when a template as versatile as the blues is put to such rote ends.
#7: Air Supply- All Out of Love
Air supply named themselves well. Their music does, in fact, sound a lot like how having a supply of air feels- in other words, remarkably similar to absolutely nothing at all. They’re just kind of… there. If I want something that can function as background music, there are entire genres that cater to that need: smooth jazz, ambient, and most subgenres of downtempo electronic, to name just a few. If I want an epic power ballad, I want something that sounds massive, something that soars into the stratosphere and builds to a big ol’ cinematic finish. “All Out of Love” is too serious-minded and blustery to work as inoffensive grocery store muzak and it’s not over-the-top or even emotional enough to go toe-to-toe with any power ballad worth its salt. Maybe I just don’t care much for this particular style of soft rock, but especially when paired with generic lyrics and frontman Russell Hitchcock’s thin-sounding vocals, I really find it hard to see the appeal in anything going on here. You want mellow and relaxing? Go listen to music that isn’t also trying to be “rock”.
#6: Captain & Tennille- Do That to Me One More Time
I think this might be my favorite Captain & Tennille song. Looking back through my spreadsheets I apparently liked “Lonely Night (Angel Face)” enough to leave it off a worst list, but a cursory re-listen suggests that that might have been more the result of rock-bottom expectations than anything else. By Captain & Tennille standards, “Do That to Me One More Time” is, dare I say, standout. For one, it’s a Toni Tennille original, and though you may rightly feel a shiver of dread up your spine at that, she actually does a passable job here, and certainly comes off less plastic and stiff than she does singing Sedaka or the Miracles. Though she’s just not an impressive frontwoman no matter how you slice it, I can’t overstate how much better-suited she is to slow, syrupy balladry than she is to the uptempo dork-pop she made her name with. So from a songwriting and performance standpoint, this is exactly fine. Nothing at all special or noteworthy, but hardly offensive to the senses. I know I bagged on Toni Tennille a lot over the course of the 70s lists, but this song makes one thing evident, and that’s that the good ol’ Captain was just as much a culprit in the duo’s awfulness as she was, if not even more so. Everything this song does so horridly wrong can be traced back to Daryl Dragon, a man with a name a thousand million times cooler than he deserved and, in all honesty, one of the absolute worst producers and arrangers of the entire 1970s. Every plucked nylon guitar string, every stupid little clicking percussion noise and keyboard chord, every second of that awful lyricon solo is so shrink-wrapped and sucked free of any iota of life or passion or musical chemistry that Tennille’s less-forced-than-usual vocals only serve to highlight just how artificial and hollow the entire rest of the song feels. I say “feels” intentionally- it’s bad on an almost tactile level, the timbres gaining a grotesque, almost uncanny quality. I’m glad that this duo never troubled the top 40 again after this, and despite it all, I’m also glad Toni ended up embarking on a modestly successful solo career in the latter half of the decade. “Do That to Me One More Time” proved she wasn’t completely undeserving of her success. I’m not sure the same can be said for the Captain.
#5: Dan Fogelberg- Longer
Dan Fogelberg managed to squeak his way onto the charts right as stripped-down, man-and-his-guitar affairs began to drift from mainstream relevance, carving out a niche for himself over the first half of the 80s as a earnest, doe-eyed crooner with a bit of a folksy streak. Now, I hate Dan Fogelberg, but he’s the kind of guy I can’t help but feel bad about hating- he really doesn’t sound like he’d hurt a fly. In fact, you could even say that’s the key to why his music is such a chore to get through. There’s no nice way to say it: Fogelberg was a total wuss. He sounded like a Precious Moments doll who learned to sing. He made Cat Stevens look like Alice Cooper. “Longer”, his first top ten single, is so overwhelmingly chaste and innocent that it almost comes across as pure farce. It’s a parody of sensitive-guy acoustic balladry, all ludicrous, foppish poeticisms about stars in the heavens and mountain cathedrals. It’s “The Twelfth of Never”, punched up by a wannabe thespian. I can’t deny that the tune itself is rather pretty, with a chord progression a fair sight more inventive that your average open-mic guitar-slinger’s, but Fogelberg’s clearly trying far too hard for profundity that just isn’t there, and his willowy voice leaves him totally unable to escape the D-grade schmaltz of his songwriting.
#4: Dr. Hook- Sexy Eyes
Man, I almost just feel bad for Dr. Hook at this point. Not only is it hard to think of a band worse-suited for a pivot to disco music, it’s hard to think of a worse time for a pivot to disco than 1980. Alas, such was the unfortunate intersection that this little-band-that-couldn’t found themselves at with “Sexy Eyes”. It’s also a shame that the band musters what could almost be mistaken for a competent dance groove here, between the firm, funky bassline and the flute accents calling back to the earliest days of the genre. If this were any other band but Dr. Hook, I might grudgingly have to admit that this song is not, in fact, completely terrible. But it is Dr. Hook, and boy, if you thought Dennis Locorierre was insufferable as a balladeer, just wait until you hear him try on his “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” dancefloor smolder. This guy was a horrendously unappealing vocalist on every conceivable level, and he pretty much single-handedly tanks the song with his pitifully half-hearted performance. Some people just weren’t made to sing about sexy eyes, and Locorierre was one of them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this too-little-too-late trend-hop only managed to hasten the end of Dr. Hook’s hitmaking career. Though public demand for both gormless, simpering soft rock and turgid white dance-pop would only slightly abate in the years to come, 1980 was seemingly the last year before we realized we had much better sources of both.
#3: Paul McCartney- Coming Up
I made it through damn near the entire ‘70s with hardly a mention of Paul McCartney. Let the record state that, for the most part, I think he managed to avoid sullying his reputation too badly on any of his 14(!) appearances on the Billboard year-end charts between 1971 and 1979. No, his work with Wings wasn’t nearly as standout as it was with The Beatles, but Macca certainly held his own, and ultimately proved himself deserving of his reputation as one of the most reliable hitmakers in rock. Heck, “Jet” was one of the last cuts I made for the ‘74 best list! So while his star may have faded ever so slightly, it wasn’t like McCartney was coming out of the 70s a total shadow of his former self or anything… Which makes “Coming Up” all the more shocking in its sheer awfulness. This song is Paul at his absolute worst: cloying, twee baby music packed full of grating tones and phony positivity. The puttering flatulence of the saxophones and the plasticky, oily keyboards make, more than anything, a strong case that George Martin doesn’t get nearly enough credit for those old Beatles songs sounding as good as they do. However, the cheap and tacky sound of the instruments is nothing compared to the atrocity that is McCartney’s voice here. It’s artificially sped up into a strangulated falsetto, then crammed through a half-dozen of the ugliest effects available; the result is of course annoying, but also heartbreakingly weak. Whatever happened to the confident, tuneful voice that not 12 months earlier was sailing smoothly through “Goodnight Tonight”? I suppose the track is at least “interesting”, in the way that any piece of music that’s been fiddled with behind the boards for long enough is, but the studio trickery here is much too aimless to save the one-dimensional, uncompelling soul of the thing.
#2: Mickey Gilley- Stand By Me
I love “Stand By Me”. I think it’s easily one of the best songs of the early 60s- in fact, it’s a strong contender for the best song of the 60s, period. On top of the lovely music and the iconic melody, it’s got this incredible sense of humanity and companionship to it that makes it feel like a talk with an old friend, a warm, inviting, and deeply emotional piece of songwriting. To be frank, I tend to think the Ben E. King original is nigh-on impossible to improve upon. There are so few elements that could be altered or removed without detracting from the overall product in my eyes, so any cover, especially by an artist in a different genre, was bound to be starting off with a bit of a handicap here. That said, country singer Mickey Gilley’s version of “Stand By Me” manages to almost completely destroy everything that made the original so potent: its delicate, minimalist sensibilities, its rhythm and its immaculate sense of pacing. For one, the song comes on too strong, with a rhythm and lead guitar both leading into the first verse. Right off the bat, everything is wrong. The original led in with a simple bassline and touches of percussion that fell into the background once the vocals came in. It felt purposefully incomplete, and instilled a sense of anticipation, a sense that the song was building to something greater. Gilley just starts off with what feels like a complete arrangement that could easily carry through to the end of the song, and it falls flat as a result. The tempo is also slowed, more of a sentimental country ballad than a midtempo R&B tune. I want to appreciate that the cover goes in a different direction stylistically, but in doing so it saps the song of any pulse, of the tension that the lyrics directly address. Similarly, Gilley takes a fair few liberties with the vocal melody, and while it is once again tempting to appreciate his willingness to not hew so close to the original, King voice starting to break at those higher notes lent the song a rawness and a soulful grit that Gilley, with his smooth southern croon, finds himself totally unable to replicate here. It’s a peculiar combination of not-enough in some spots and much-too-much in others, and while there’s still a very, very good song at its core, Gilley thoroughly fails to rise to the occasion in a way that makes his “Stand By Me” almost worse than any song that outright sucks.
#1: Benny Mardones- Into the Night
I’d like to think that, overall, I’m not especially easy to offend; there are areas where my standards for what constitutes “problematic” lyrical content are perhaps even a bit more lax than your average listener. That said, I have pretty much zero tolerance for songs about how badly some dude wants to screw a high schooler. I do not want to hear it. It is and always will be one of the quickest paths to the top of a PGTY worst list. Hell, just last year it knocked The Knack’s “My Sharona” from the ‘79 best list all the way out of even my private list of honorable mentions, even though I like that song a lot on a musical level. But hey, at least in the (slightly) more enlightened year of 1980, I wouldn’t have to endure anything so unsavory, right? Wrong: Benny Mardones dashed my hopes of making it through the 1980 year-end hot 100 without being subjected to any songs about ephebophilia with his biggest and only hit, “Into the Night”. The nicest thing I can say about this song is that it doesn’t string you along. The first lines, verbatim: “She’s just 16 years old / Leave her alone, they say / Separated by fools / Who don’t know what love is”. Well, there it is right off the bat, right? This man (who was 33 years old when he recorded this) is infatuated with a 16 year old girl, and the people telling him to leave her alone are all heartless jerks who just don’t get it.
Go fuck yourself, Benny Mardones. How about you thank all these people trying to keep you from committing statutory rape? And just so my bases are covered, I don’t at all buy the crap Mardones said in interviews about how the line was inspired by him telling his writing partner to back off from the song’s real-life inspiration (who was a neighbor of his). In one of those interviews, he literally describes that girl as “16-going-on-21”, but sure, it’s some other guy who was the perv. Frankly, that line alone got this song to the top of the worst list, but the rest of the song makes it a pretty easy choice too. Imagine if those old Meatloaf albums were really, really tired. Imagine the histrionic bombast of “Heaven Can Wait” or “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”, but only clocking in at around fifty or sixty percent energy-wise. That’s about how Mardones sounds here. I’ll admit I tend to be unimpressed by hammy, melodramatic vocal delivery, but this is the kind of song where you really do have to bellow it with everything you’ve got, and if you aren’t firing on all cylinders vocally it just won’t work. All the compositional pieces are more or less in place, but it just sort of seems like Mardones is half-assing it here, even when he gets some real volume. If Mardones had sung it better this would still be a very bad song, but as it stands the performance here winds up a middling-quality chassis for the most heinous lyricism of the year.