I was eating a slice at one of my neighborhood pizzerias the other day. Well actually it was two slices and a drink: either a plastic bottle of corn syrup, or a large styrofoam cup with ice and corn syrup, your choice. That’s their lunch special for five and change. I went with the plastic bottle of corn syrup.
So anyway, there I was, having at it, and all the while the 1970s station on their satellite radio was being piped in as usual. For the most part, it’s a pleasant enough way to pass the fifteen minutes or so that it takes for me to get my food, plop into a hard booth, and then wolf it down. Mostly what wafts down from the overhead speakers are harmless tunes you’ve heard a thousand times before, hits from that fabled decade when viable music could be found on both AM and FM radio stations.
For someone like me, born in 1967 and raised on radio, it’s almost impossible to find a song that I haven’t heard before on a station like this. The whole thing is a predictable corporate endeavor that minimizes risk and targets demographically derived profits by tightly cleaving to an established catalog with which I am intimately familiar. It’s the usual fare of black music (Disco, R&B, Funk) and white music (Rock and Pop) from the era: Billboard hits that were once ubiquitous and now run the gamut from standards to novelties. At best, every now and then they might surprise you with a tune you haven’t heard in a while, unearthing a pleasant memory and triggering the release of some wistful endorphins in your brain.
But not last Friday.
There I was, chomping on a slice, which I had dutifully garnished with granulated garlic, oregano, ground black pepper, and red pepper flakes, when I thought I heard something I’d never heard before. I perked my ear up as the song began with:
When I get home from work
I wanna wrap myself around you
I wanna take you and squeeze you
Til the passion starts to rise
“That’s pretty insipid,” I thought to myself. But it’s just typical, `70s soft-rock crap: a poorly constructed and saccharine ode love wrapped around a painfully obvious cock metaphor. I’ll just ignore it. But then came:
I wanna take you to heaven
That would make my day complete
I nearly cackled out loud before catching myself, trapping the aborted laughter as a snort and bringing up a little piece of mozzarella. I wanna take you to heaven, that would make my day complete? As in, you know, it’s been a pretty good day up until now, was super productive at work, got a nice compliment from the boss, didn’t hit any traffic on the way home, and now if I could just flag us a cab after dinner and go up to heaven, well, that would be a really great way to round out the day. Seriously?
I was mildly stunned, contemplating the phenomenal stupidity of the song, when it broke into the chorus:
But you and me ain't no movie stars
What we are is what we are
We share a bed
and TV, yeah
And then I cocked my head like a dog does at a curious sound. “Holy shit. Wait a second,” I thought, unnerved by a sense of confused nostalgia. “I think I actually know this.”
And that's enough for a workin' man
What I am is what I am
And I tell you, babe
well that's enough for me
Wow. I haven’t heard this song in at least a quarter-century, probably longer. But it’s all coming back to me now, and you know what? I think I used to like it. Quite a bit. I had completely forgotten about it, and now here I am, listening to it again unexpectedly, and being rather surprised to find out that it is absolutely one of the worst songs ever.
On an aesthetic level, when the 1970s worked, they really worked. Anyone old enough to remember them knows what I’m talking about. For those too young, I’m sorry, but you missed it, and its likes shan’t be seen again in our lifetimes, I’m afraid. But the `70s also sometimes bombed really hard, and that hit or miss quality is one of the main reasons why all these years later, the 1970s are both emulated and mocked, romanticized nostalgically and shunned in horror.
Striped, knee-high tube socks, avocado kitchen appliances, short gym shorts, sideburns, track suits, afros, wide pointy collars and lapels, formica, bell bottoms, plexi-glass, cocaine, speedos, polyesther, and colors, colors everywhere.
It’s all still pretty divisive.
For the most part, I loved it, and still do, but the super seventies style didn’t always work. No denying that there was a lot of shit. And this song, as it turns out, managed to take every bad `70s cliche and execute it poorly.
For example, you’ve got schmaltzy lyrics and an intrusive orchestra. Now unfortunately, both of those things were pretty commonplace during the 1970s. In and of themselves they’re nothing remarkable, just cheesy crap that was part and parcel of the music scene. So how do you bring the verbal and aural cheese to the next level of awful?
You have the string section swell just as the singer declares: But that’s enough for a workin’ man, what I am is what I am.
And you do it, apparently, without any sense irony.
That’s emblematic of the kind of deeply ingrained flaws afflicting this song. It takes something that sucks and makes it suck even more. For example, it is also a victim of that classic 1970s ending: the fade.
I remember picking up a book of Journey sheet music when I was a teenager (yes, I had every Journey album in high school, let’s just get that out of the way now). Studying that book and learning to play those songs taught me three things. First, and most importantly, don’t ever, ever stop believin’. Second, you’ll only have so much fun playing guitar music on a piano. Beautiful fuckin’ instrument, the piano, but not much for power chords. And third, the official music theory description for the end of most Journey songs is apparently: Repeat, Ad Lib, Fade.
I would’ve preferred something more poetic, like the words Keep Playing over and over again in smaller and smaller font, but either way it alerted me to the artifice of what was going on. It’s like the musical equivalent of a laugh track on a sitcom: a lazy, half-assed, corporate way to pull everything together, a cheap and sloppy shortcut that tries to create the illusion of being tight, sharp, and successful. Can’t be bothered to write a joke that’s actually funny? End it with a laugh track and hope no one notices. Can’t be bothered to figure out an actual ending for your song? End it by fading out and hope no one notices.
So needless to say, I wasn’t surprised that as I was finishing the crust on my second slice, this god-awful song was bringing its torturous sound scape to a decrescendo via the dreaded fade out. But even the way it did that was stupefying. Because, though it was a bit unexpected by this point, the song actually has a natural stopping point. A damn near perfect stopping point, really. This minor-chorded fiasco could’ve gotten one thing right by ending as the music dies down and approaches the home chord while the singer croons, I’ll tell ya baby, that’s just enough for me.
Yeah, ya know what? That would work. Despite everything that’s gone horribly wrong up until now, it could still find a nice ending, a somewhat artistic dovetail as everything comes together to create a graceful exit for an otherwise embarrassingly shitty song.
Except it doesn’t actually end there. Inexplicably, the orchestra starts up again. Woodwinds, strings, the whole deal. It’s as if they’re on a tape loop, and after they’ve finished going through their charts, they wind it up again right on cue, for no good reason, and commence a completely pointless, half-minute fade out from the top.
Anyway, the important thing is that it was finally over. I just shook my head in dismay. How was it that I ever liked this song to begin with? How on earth did I once think this thing had good lyrics, catchy chord progressions, and some heartfelt soul?
Oh yeah. I was nine.
Anyway, the biggest surprise of all? The artist. Turns out it was Alice Cooper of all people. Yeah, Mr. Welcome to My Nightmare, Mr. Scarey Makeup, Mr. Bloody Stage Show, Mr. Legendary Drug Consumption, Mr. Chicken Killer, the whole nine yards. He was the talentless, soft rock creep who penned and sang the unfathomably bad “You and Me.” You know, the same guy who once released an album called Muscle of Love.
Cooper co-wrote it with guitarist Dick Wagner. It was produced by Bob Ezrin and appears on his 1977 solo album Lace and Whiskey. It was the lead single and peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard pop chart. The b-side was “It’s Hot Tonight”.
Alice Cooper’s “You and Me”: Worst. Song. Ever.
Though of course I’m open to your suggestions.