No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we freakin’ delivered the goods.
Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds”,our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be, or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.
*”That’s Their Pet Sounds”is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.
Welcome to casual Friday….
Rupert Holmes’s Best Album: Adventure (1980)
Background: I need to start this in pure, unadulterated “get off my lawn” style but want to offer an apology in advance for the miniature hissy fit I’m about to throw. It’s just before we get into this particular masterpiece by the angel above, Rupert Holmes, we need to talk about the concept of Yacht Rock. I’m a hardliner in that I don’t believe in the whole idea of “guilty pleasure” since you can’t help what you like. It’s easier to just own up and love stuff openly because at the end of the day who gives a rats ass what anyone else thinks. Which segues into why I think Yacht Rock is both a troublingly subjective and wildly imperfect means of musical categorization, as it’s not so much an actual genre as it is a directive on how to hear particular artists and songs, created for primarily comedic purposes.
And to make matters worse, the overall sound that it has come to define actually already had a name before it was called Yacht Rock and was /is specifically tethered to a time and actual group of artists (and loosely, a place). It was called West Coast and from around 1978-1983, it was as pervasive on U.S.radio waves as hair metal was in later in the decade. During those years, the top 40 charts were absolutely brimming with West Coast.
The “sound” was typified by supreme musicianship, slick production, and melodic smoothness and the people that made it tended to be straight, white guys, within the age range of 25-35. And as the state of the art recording studios in Southern California were where the overwhelmingly majority of it was created, where the best known purveyors of it tended to be based at some point, years later, it started getting referred to as West Coast, though as I alluded to, the music itself was created all over. I never even knew it had a name until like 10 or 15 years ago when searching for some “where are they now” type info, I stumbled upon a website called Blue Desert.
Here are some very fine albums from the heyday of the West Coast sound. Nothin’ but pure, unadulterated, bearded romance.
But Yacht Rock also selectively drags in bits of another maligned genre that was being birthed during the same era, that of AOR. Now AOR ( Album Oriented Rock) is basically the musical equivalent of Baby Bear’s bed in Goldilocks and the Three Bears; not too Hard (Rock), not too Soft (Rock) but juuuuust right…in the middle that is, taking elements of both and accentuating neither. For context, let’s just say Journey are The Beatles of AOR …but they are actually, believe it or not, too much of a rock band to fall into the Yacht category. Toto are The Beatles of West Coast and while they have songs that fall firmly into the AOR category, their general smoothness has landed them straight in the Yacht Rock wheelhouse. Breathe in, breathe out…
And as if the latter day categorization wasn’t enough, at the time the sound, let’s just call it West Coast for now, was happening, within the music industry it was referred to as, wait for it, Adult Contemporary aka Soft Rock. Both of those descriptors were code to describe music for grown people who like pop but wanted to hear things that were mellow and non-threatening. There is still an official Adult Contemporary Chart to this day ( also sometimes abbreviated to “AC”) and as of this writing, Maroon 5 are occupying the # 1 spot which I have no smart alecky thing to say about because it’s unnecessary.
I know, this is far more confusing than it needs to be….and that’s the thing, because in real time when these songs were actually being released, especially to my kid ears, it just was just plain old pop music. To the average listener of Casey Kasem’s weekly Top 40 radio show back in the late ’70’s and early ’80s, these songs currently singled out as Yacht Rock, which are West Coast, with occasional nods to AOR but technically Adult Contemporary were just part of an amorphous blob of hit singles, rubbing shoulders with everything from The Cars to Kool And The Gang. They were pop songs, that’s it.
Clear the runway y’all…
A Man Called Rupert: While singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes has a number of noteworthy achievements in his CV, including writing a Tony award winning Broadway musical and producing a Streisand album, he is most famous for creating what’s become the unofficial anthem of Yacht Rock, the # 1 hit from 1979,“Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”. Based on those career highlights it should be pretty clear that when it came to this music thing, Rupert Holmes was looking at the world through a more mature set of eyes. His primary audience were grown people, actual adults with jobs, mortgages and alimony payments.
The back cover of the 1979 single of “Escape…” featured a handy recipe for making a Piña Colada because this was a record for grown people. Not gonna discuss the front.
1980’s Adventure, Rupert’s sixth studio album, was the follow up album to the previous years, Partners in Crime ( which featured 3 Top 40 hits “Him”, “Answering Machine” and the aforementioned “Escape…”). In terms of sales it was a huge failure and none of it’s singles landed in the pop Top 40. In fact from this point forward, Holmes himself would never again appear in the pop Top 40 performing his own songs ( though he still managed to score a huge hit in 1986 albeit as a songwriter).
Why it’s his Pet Sounds: While the plush production, epically clever lyrics and Billy Joel/Nilsson-esque melodies in his 5 albums prior to Adventure tend to get the accolades (especially Partners, with it’s triumvirate of hits), this is the one Holmes album where absolutely everything was on point. It’s the leanest, least jokey and most straight up “ROCK” thing he ever did and is filled end to end with well-scrubbed, orderly guitar solos and shiny bridges. And yup, as is his custom, Adventure is home to more hooks than an overstuffed tackle box.
This album offers no mystery whatsoever. You will never be confused by the lyrical content or be tempted to play it backwards in search of secret messages. Every emotion and situation is described in clear precise language. It’s basically 10 soap opera scenes, miniature screenplays and short stories set to music . This is the Holmes Style™ and a skill that lent itself perfectly to his later endeavor of writing musicals and TV shows. The main lyrical ingredients here are clarity and earnestness with added dollops of cheese, knowing winks and “did you get it” elbowing. You know, kind of like a musical.
And you won’t find any meandering epics or extended instrumental interludes. Every song is unabashedly auditioning to be a single and future radio star.
To summarize, while Adventure didn’t set the charts alight alas, it is a truly seminal Yacht Rock-West Coast-Adult Contemporary-Soft Rock-Pop classic that deserves it’s due because, let’s get “1980” for a second, it’s just totally bitchin’.
*Sidenote: Actually there IS one mystery, that being why in God’s name a teenage girl who was obsessed with Sting and maintained a fat Police scrapbook should have been remotely interested in this album. It spoke from a vantage point that she had zero understanding of, that of a successful, nearly middle aged man living I assume, in LA. This album screamed midlife crisis from it’s every orifice. Yet it was a frequent occupant of my turntable. And for the record, yes I believed Sting “understood” me & I him. I know we both agreed on the most crucially important of all facts; that Sting himself was hot.
Okay, look sensitive…
The Songs (side one):
The album opens with the epic title track “Adventure” and though I kind of hate myself for doing this, I need to invent a new f-ing category to describe it because it leaves me no choice. “Adventure” is a “Yacht Prog” song. It’s fat, cheesily dramatic keyboard opening bears a striking similarity to what Genesis were turning out in the late ’70s. But while Genesis were still singing about mythical creatures and “kings who were laughing in the rain” at that point, Rupert was offering up an oozingly earnest sermon about how Hollywood’s interpretation of adventure ain’t nothing compared to the unexpected, even more thrilling real life encounters us average Joe’s have. He employs some absurdly dramatic pauses ( you could drive a tractor trailer between his “and” and “then”) and I’m conspiratorially convinced ABBA’s Benny and Bjorn co-opted the vibe from this very song for their own musical Chess a few years later in the form of 1984’s mountainously cheesy megahit “One Night in Bangkok”…only “Adventure” is an infinitely better song.
But if we sell ourselves as somebody else we could make a misconnection
You’ll end up with one who loves not you but THE MASK…
While Rupert Holmes may not be Nostradamus, the prescience in evidence on “The Mask” with it’s primitive allusions to “catfishing” and pleas to just be your damn self are oddly impressive considering the song is 40 years old. The tune itself is built on a neat sinewy little groove but is also full of surprisingly clever and unpredictable key and tempo changes. To hear him passionately plead alongside an awesomely fuzzy, ascending electric guitar line for you “to tear the mask off“, might cause you in true Twilight Zone style to wonder how Rupert could’ve have possibly foreseen social media’s effect on future human relations in 1980 or then again maybe it’s just proof that people haven’t changed like at all.
“Blackjack” -The intro of the song sounds suspiciously like the kind of music you’d hear while watching a Las Vegas magician suddenly emerge from a cloud of smoke waving a wand while throwing shapes under an undulating spotlight. But it’s most likely just meant to sound “Vegas-y”, as if a wildly spinning roulette wheel could emit music. “Blackjack” is built on a bed of awesomely obvious gambling metaphors to describe love, all double downs, Queen of Hearts and chips but again Rupert surprises, employing loads of cooly oddball turns within the tune. This song rocks in a civilized and orderly fashion and while things don’t get out of hand, it does feature a break constructed for audience participation which I’m certain it didn’t get to enjoy in any significant way in it’s heyday. Here is the sleeve of the single which while somewhat endearing is the very anthesis of rocking.
Time to throw some light ( and shade) on one of the more unpleasant pop music tropes from days of yore, namely successful 30 plus year old soft rocker guys writing about high school girls. This was such a common thing in the seventies and eighties that it was almost a sub-genre to itself. Paul Davis, Billy Joel, Robbie Dupree, Benny Mardones (and many, many others), all hit the charts with paeans to teenage girls, within which they were either reliving the exploits of their younger selves or, okay benefit of the doubt here, wistfully reminiscing in their current conditions. At that juncture in pop music history, you could get away with this shit with perfect impunity. It was so normalized that it wasn’t even questioned, after all, it had been going on for decades with future legends Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis leading the charge back in the’50s in the absolute worst possible ways.
But since we didn’t grow up with these guys and only knew them as grown ass men, this kind of thing could sound extraordinarily dicey ( remember this ?). What also sucked was that despite their questionable content some of these songs actually were freakin’ great…and I confess to an abiding love for several of them (dammit). Rupert’s contribution to the genre “The O’Brien Girl” is generally pretty subdued but while not overtly sexual it does come across as the sentiment of an obsessed fantasist. The lead character in this song has a backstory involving her leaving her previous high school but the story behind her departure is never revealed (though it’s implied something unfortunate happened to land her at Rupert’s school). All in all, it’s a regal and handsome ballad with a gloriously incongruous electric guitar adding a tiny and straight up weird bit of edge.
If any of you have been to a Fleetwood Mac concert featuring the classic line-up of Stevie, Lindsey, Christine, John & Mick, you may recollect a point in the show when the band introduces each other. And you can probably recall which band member got the biggest cheers. Of course even if you haven’t been you can probably guess. It didn’t matter how many insane runs Lindsey did on his guitar or how killer his version of “Big Love” was, it was very clear who the star was, who was the most beloved. It was always Stevie Nicks. And it sucks right, it was sort of “your” thing, I mean you insisted she be in the band and this is what happens. Yup, no matter how hard you’ve worked, your bearded ass will never hold a candle to our beloved, spectral queen. In “Crowd Pleaser” Rupert describes a similar scenario and mostly cowers in the corner as backing singer Chrissy Faith crushes him with her steamroller. The chorus falls somewhere in between Kiss and Blue Oyster Cult. Seriously. I think after getting typecast as the Piña Colada guy, Rupert just wanted to f-ing rock for a minute or at least show people that he could. And bless him, for despite the earnest on the nosiness of this whole song, it’s insanely fun.
The Songs (side two):
“You’ll Love Me Again”– Yes, the sentiment of the title is as troubling as it sounds. It really should’ve been called “Red Flag” for under the guise of a love song, something far more sinister is afoot.
Here is a typical verse :
You loved me once and you’ll love me again
She said ” You think so ?”
I said “I know so, I know so much about you now”
She said “Well maybe”
I said “There is no maybe”
It’s all very Dateline. Which dovetails perfectly into the songs extravagant arrangement, with it’s Phil Collins style drum fills and Beach Boy-esque, Corvette convertible, twanging guitar line post chorus. Oh yes, this is most definitely “Yacht Prog” and it’s a goofy, glorious, passive-aggressive beauty to be sure.
Back in the day, the inherently terrible and misogynistic term “frigid” was a commonly used to describe women who didn’t like or respond to sex in an “appropriately” heated manner. The more “polite” but still inherently questionable version of frigid is cold . While Rupert’s take on this notion, “Cold” is more polite than say the Stones screaming take regarding the same idea, it also manages to serve up a little quiet menace. Here, glaciers, sleet storms, blocks of ice are all overcome by the thawing agent known as “Spanish Wine”. Yeah, you get it. There’s some table turning in the latter half of the song which makes the whole idea of “Cold” feel less hostile ( Rupert is more progressive than Freud it appears). Weird thing is that despite all this, I’ve always kind of loved this song, which I pretty exclusively put down to it’s exceptional, twisting, turning tune and overall grooviness; that part is indisputable.
Which brings us to “Morning Man”, about a guy who is in love with a nurse who works the overnight shift while he works during the day. And so they have to get it while they can. And they make it work, unsurprisingly he is always ready to go (“doesn’t take much to wake me, just you shake your morning man” Rupert croons sweetly). And so you know, it’s a pop song about morning stuff. But holy crap, this tune, it’s just plain swoon-worthingly gorgeous.
The last 2 tracks on the album are the toughest listens, the most Broadway-ish sounding and the least rockin’. They have their virtues ( melodically tight) but they wither in the light of all that came before.
“I Don’t Need You” is silly. It’s main attribute is it’s resolutely bouncy tune. It’s sentiments are similar to that of 10CC’s brilliant “I’m Not in Love” but have a decidedly cutesy flavor which quickly upends the pseudo-rockin mood Rupert had been establishing up to this point. To be frank, it’s the kind of thing your Grandparents might have liked had they heard it emanating from your teenage bedroom. Which is a terrible, terrible scenario. I now need to offer an anecdote to drive the aforementioned point home.
If you grew up in the seventies or eighties you will probably be familiar evening talk show host Merv Griffin. Though he was initially meant to rival daytime talk show king Mike Douglas, he was on at night and more akin to Johnny Carson but like the poor man’s version as in he was less charismatic and uh, likeable.
But in his defense, he seemed to care about us kids…or at least the person who booked musical artists for his show did. Which is to say he featured waaaaay cooler musical guests than Carson ever did, like he had Soft Cell on doing “Tainted Love” when it came out and even went so far as to invite them over to the guest sofa to have an actual chat. It was WTF wonderful, incongruous and embarrassing all at the same time. I even remember seeing Devo on there, as well as Marvin Gaye which was undeniably cool. Now in the ’40s and ’50s Merv had been a bit of a crooner and so was often inclined to open his shows with a song. In keeping with the progressive nature of things, he would occasionally attempt songs of a contemporary nature . And on one particular evening, he chose to open with Rupert’s “I Don’t Need You”. The song was sort of new at the time and juuuuust the right amount of corny for an aging TV Host to belt out without completely humiliating himself.
Now while I was well aware that Adventure wasn’t a cool album by any stretch, the idea that this old, sports jacket wearing Hollywood guy was rocking the same thing on his turntable as me really put me off. I genuinely remember thinking WTF, this is my album you old cheeseball. And that is my main memory of this song. Even when I hear it now I think of Merv awkwardly schmoozing around the stage to it and for this reason, I just can’t. But I will give points for it’s schmaltzy and sweet guitar line because that’s actually kind of cool.
I’ll be honest , the last track “Special Thanks” also pisses me off a little. Despite it’s good intentions, there is something gruesomely condescending in it’s tone. It is as the title insinuates a song of thanks. He thanks the waiter for the table with a view. He thanks the pretzel vendor & all the denizens of the park that day who provide a backdrop for he and his love to walk through. He thanks the city for providing the opportunity to live out his dreams. Yes, a little smarmy and unctuous but I suppose since it’s the last song we can cut him some slack; it doesn’t change a thing.
Rupert included that genuine little message you see above on the inner sleeve. It is clear by his tone that even he didn’t think a teenage person was likely to “fork out” for his grown up album. And that was probably an accurate observation based on his whole persona and the subject matter. As a recently minted teenager of course I didn’t own an apartment, house or car . But I did possess an obsession with AM radio, an allowance and a blue shag carpeted teen bedroom to play records in. And while I couldn’t entirely relate to the sentiments ( frigid ladies, night nurses, artifice, consumerism…wha?), I was completely enraptured by all the head spinning hooks, which were just plain more important. And though we haven’t really discussed it, I kind of dug his voice with it’s faintly detectable lisp.
When it comes to straight up melodic mastery Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson and Todd Rundgren are pretty much the gold standard but know what, Rupert Holmes had a similar strain running in him…and you can hear it all over Adventure.
Despite my love of the album, I never felt inclined to write and respond to his message… but maybe in a way this essay is a letter that arrived 40 years late. Or shoot, I’ll just write a quick note now.
I love Adventure and in my lifetime have played it at least as much as “Zenyatta Mondatta” ( but maybe not as much as “Ghost in the Machine”), but still I know every word to every song and can hum every guitar solo if tested. I’m proud to say I have officially lived long enough to understand what you were talking about in the songs. I think this album is your Pet Sounds. I’m eternally grateful it exists. And so no, Thank YOU.