It’s been a *long* hiatus. Last year was a little crazy. But, I’ve got my feet back underneath me, and I’m ready to wrap up the first of my old mixtapes.
So, without further ado, Robert Palmer.
Even with my limited knowledge of pop music in the 80s, it would have been impossible not to have known Robert Palmer. The man was an icon, or at least his music videos were.
“Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible” were inescapable, even for a kid like me who grew up without the benefit of MTV. These were among the few pop songs I absolutely remember knowing as a kid — the car radio, the mall, the pool, the jukeboxes. Later, when I did get MTV, these videos were on heavy rotation for years. Robert Palmer was simply the epitome of cool.
Talk about an eclectic career, though. For a white guy growing up in ’50s England, it was certainly not unusual to be influenced by African-American music; RP started off in English clubs but quickly moved on to jazz-fusion, R&B, funk, and reggae-inspired rock. Although he had one top 20 hit in 1978, the Caribbean-influenced “Every Kinda People,” his career really took off once he turned toward a more mainstream rock sound. From 1979 on, he infused the cool synth of new wave with his unique blue-eyed Brit-soul, and both with The System and solo, he scored 16 top 100 hits before 1990.
1990/91 also seemed to be a time ripe for retrospection, especially in younger white soul singers. In a previous blog post, I talked a bit about how Rick Astley moved away from the Europop of his big late 80s hits and toward an adult contemporary sound, complete with gospel choir and Very Serious Message. The same was happening with singers like George Michael, who were actively shedding their pin-up images for more contemplative artistry. (FYI: Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1 is still one of my favorite albums of all time, and I will say more about that in the near future.)
Robert Palmer made a similar move here. Like Michael, who staked out his mature sound on LWP in part by covering Stevie Wonder, Palmer pays homage to one of his own musical forefathers by covering a medley of Marvin Gaye numbers. Unlike Palmer’s (or Gaye’s) earlier suave romantic lyrics, “Mercy Mercy Me” is a poignant commentary on the precarious state of the environment. “I Want You,” though, returns to romance, but with a more mature adult yearning rather than the youthful flirtation or seduction found in earlier tunes. While combining the two seems like an odd choice on paper, in a way the song conflates the tension of unrequited love with the impotence and helplessness facing an environmental activist, and in one fell swoop, Robert Palmer becomes the narrator of every ounce of 1990 angst, as well as joining us in collectively memorializing a fallen icon.
As I’ve mentioned before in a bunch of my blog posts, I didn’t listen to much pop music growing up, and really started exploring everything I could get my ears on as I got through middle school. But I did listen to a lot of oldies on the radio. I adored Marvin Gaye—all of Motown—but the more progressive-minded, socially conscious music of the late 60s and 70s didn’t receive much airplay at the time. This cover was my introduction to that era of Motown music. For me, it was perfect timing; 1990 saw the passing of the Clean Air Act, and my science classes were inundated with talk about acid rain, recycling, and the growing holes in the ozone layer. Palmer’s cover resonated with me for that reason, and joined a small but growing collection of socially conscious pop that helped cultivate my own sense of personal conscience (think the aforementioned George Michael album, containing the anti-war ballad “Mother’s Pride,” or virtually all of Phil Collins’s album … But Seriously, both of which were released around 1989-90). I listened to this track over and over again, I think, without even realizing that it was a medley of two songs or that it was Marvin Gaye. I can’t tell you exactly when I realized what the background of the two songs were, but it must not have been long after the song’s release, because I remember placing Gaye’s album What’s Going On on a pedestal very early on, and deservedly so.
Palmer discusses his love for Marvin Gaye at the end of his feature on the Arsenio Hall show in 1991, after the live version of the song, here:
RP’s version reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #4 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Sadly, Robert Palmer passed away in 2003.
Next week: the last track on Radio Remix #1.