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There’s a certain kind of music that sounds like it should be played in a dark arcade that smells of french fry oil and smuggled liquor, that is redolent of Saturday nights spent in a decade not my own (perhaps the late ’70s?, early ’80s?) indulging in the foibles of youth. It’s the kind of music that would be good to hear while losing yourself in a downward spiral/cocaine haze, but it’s also the kind of music that you could listen to while cruising empty suburban streets with your first love.
A frenetic, propulsive energy accompanies this kind of music that is not unlike the hyper-speed pings and clacks that accompany a game of pinball.The music feels sweaty and confident in its own stamina as if it’s goal is to go quickly and carelessly in search of its own gratification. It’s capricious and insouciant, full of futuristic buzzes and bells that now sound charmingly anachronistic. I have decided to choose four songs that share some qualities of “pinball music” : Sniff ‘n’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat”, Sweet’s “Love Is Like Oxygen”, Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason” and Donnie Iris’s “Ah! Leah!” As you will soon discover, the categorization is rather arbitrary but when hearing these songs in succession, one could envision a fleeting era of randy kids in muscle tees and cropped tops rocking into the night and flirting in a dimly lit rec space near the Miss Pacman console. Some are partaking in amphetamines Some are revved up on their own sexed-up fumes. All of them are careening towards some unknown zenith of elation and desire.
Driver’s Seat - Sniff ‘n’ the Tears
This 1979 chart-topper is stupendously awesome apart from any discussion about musical genre. It took me nearly seven years to figure out who sang this damn song and then one mundane afternoon while folding laundry, it came on my Sirius radio and BLAMO! I was able to give credit where credit was due. Just listen to that relentless, adrenalized rhythm section propel and then fade into the taut cacaphony of other instruments pounding onward and upward as the band continues chugging like an engine in danger of going off the rails. But they never do. They are always in control and maintain the restless energy of the song with a deft sleekness. This is the “pinball music” anthem if ever there was one. It’s about getting behind the wheel of one’s life if only for “a little jiving on a Saturday night.” “Driver’s Seat” does not embrace the night’s offerings with a dark abandon, but rather with a youthful bouyancy that seizes whatever may come but holds tight on the reins.
Love Is Like Oxygen - Sweet
The best song that E.L.O. never wrote. These glam rockers take a swing at highly orchestrated rock and knock it into previously unexplored supernal realms of “pinball music” greatness. They’ve crafted a collage of palatable space-age rock sounds: the baroque classic rock intro, the soft power ballad vocals on the verse, the Jeff Lynne-inspired rollicking funkiness of the chorus melded with those helium vocal stylizings that then digress into proggy fathoms to be puncuated by a few false stops and then magically float out on a superbly fun disco-funk outro. “Love Is Like Oxygen” reflects the fickle, mercurial and yet totally fascinating mood swings of the young and restless. For those youthful in spirit, it is neither here nor there. It is nowhere or everywhere. Sweet pay tribute to the overblown urgency of the lovesick heart: every random nuance and note is captured here. It’s also the song that would play before at the night’s decline, the song one hears as dawn approaches and there is one last chance to grab the brass ring, one last moment to make your move before time encroaches and curfew rears its ugly head.
Never Been Any Reason - Head East
Oh my gosh, it’s just perfection. Absolute perfection. It figures that the epitome of classic rock would be a song by a band that no one remembers and never really had any staying power. An exuberant hymn to the powers of a good woman’s love. This is the song you want to play during your first kiss, during your Donkey Kong high score, during that moment when you realize hope is not lost and redemption is just in sight in the guise of that person at the bar, that person whose path you inexplicably crossed again, or that one special person you wronged terribly who has, inexplicably and incredibly, forgiven you. And yet, this doesn’t truly get at what Head East accomplished with this song, let alone does it let it stand apart from countless other rock tunes that are a sonic buoy in a sea of dissonance. I must asservate that “Never Been Any Reason” nails it in an almost spiritual way in which very few have from that amazingly composed synth symphonic opening, the staccato guitar riff, slow and steady, doggedly persistent and yet a wee bit anxious, the plaintive vocals thirsty with longing, pensive and yet strong, giving way to that choral cry of salvation that gives me goosepimples each and every time: “Save my life, I’m goin’ down for the last time/ Woman with the sweet lovin’, better than a white line/ Bring a good feelin’ ain’t had in such a long time/Save my life, I’m goin’ down for the last time.” This is proto-pinball music. The originator. Each time I hear it, I light up in all different places just like the electric mappings of a pinball game board. And you should, too.
Ah! Leah! - Donnie Iris
Donnie Iris is an unheralded pop genius and this is his masterwork. On first listen, 1980’s “Ah! Leah!” seems a parody of a straightforward rock tune a la Foreigner: the stubborn, overly forceful guitars, the horny bravado of the vocals that are borderline threatening juxtaposed with the hushed and lilting chorus that repeats a girl’s name with romantic desperation. Then you listen again and realize it’s incredibly sincere and brilliantly constructed. It’s a rock song, it’s a pop song, it’s of its time, it’s timeless. Then you watch the video and you can’t believe that this super nerdy-looking guy from the band that sang “Play That Funky Music” got away with it while managing to garner himself a Hot 100 hit. And even though you can vouch for its timelessness, you yearn for the days when a pop song like this could be played. It’s jubilant. It’s carefree. It’s fun. It’s ephemeral and yet seems designed to make memories around it. And maybe that’s really what “pinball music” is, the kind of music you made memories around when you were first shaping your musical tastes, your sexual preferences, your life, yourself. When everything was on fire and you’re someone else from one moment to the next, pinging back and forth with bells ringing in your head. When you were young. Of course, this isn’t the music of my adolescence…maybe pinball music is the aural equivalent of John Hughes’ movies for us who were born in the ’80s: it’s what we wanted our teenage years to sound like.