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Hits That Hurt : In Some Cases, That Top 10 Smash Can Smash an Artist's Image

January 03, 1988|PAUL GREIN

In the annals of '80s pop, the quintessential wimp record is Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony & Ivory." The song--a sugar-coated plea for racial harmony--logged seven weeks at No. 1 in 1982 and earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.

But the song's soft, gentle nature--which was mirrored in a video featuring the singers sitting on giant piano keys--didn't do much for their street credibility. Released in the same year as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and Prince's "1999," it made them seem very much the elder statesmen of pop.

McCartney reinforced his "wimp" image later that year with an equally soft duet with Michael Jackson, "The Girl Is Mine." He redeemed himself somewhat with the 1983 success of the spunky "Say Say Say"--another duet with Jackson--but plunged back into wimpdom with "No More Lonely Nights" in 1984.

Wonder cemented the wimp image in 1984 with the sing-song ballad "I Just Called to Say I Love You," which some fans consider charming but many regard as sickeningly sweet. Though the song reached No. 1 and won an Oscar, there are signs that it has hurt the acceptance of Wonder's subsequent releases. The Motown veteran's recent single "Skeletons"--a funky, earthy record--failed to crack the Top 15. One likely reason: Fans who might have liked such a record tuned Wonder out years ago.

Case Studies Nos. 5-7: Styx, Robert Plant and

Electric Light Orchestra

Black pop isn't the only field where wimpy is a dirty word. That's even more true in rock, where image and credibility are all-important.

ELO, one of the top pop-rock groups of the mid-'70s, never recovered from its association with the 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie vehicle "Xanadu." The British band landed three Top 20 singles from the hit sound-track album, but would probably trade them in for the opportunity to go back and pass on the project. Though the band's four pre-"Xanadu" albums all went platinum, it hasn't since returned to that status.

It's often risky for rock acts to play the pop singles game. Blondie's rock credibility was hurt by its series of pop singles, including the disco-oriented "Call Me" and the rap-influenced "Rapture." Likewise, Wang Chung's rock base has been undermined by its recent pop/dance hits "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" and "Let's Go."

The Starship may face a similar problem this year. There are signs that its flurry of ultra-commercial pop singles in the past two years--including "We Built This City" and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now"--has alienated the group's core album-buying audience.

It's especially risky for rock bands to cut ballads. That's a sure way to get on a wide range of radio formats--witness the success of records like Journey's "Open Arms" and the Cars' "Drive."

But too many ballad hits can undermine an act's rock credibility. That's what happened with Styx, one of the most commercially successful bands of the late '70s. A string of ballads, including "Babe," "The Best of Times" and "Don't Let it End," led fans to think the band had gone soft.

The band's 1983 album, "Kilroy Was Here," sold about a third as well as its peak '70s collections. Styx subsequently disbanded, and group members Dennis DeYoung and Tommy Shaw have released solo albums to indifferent response.

It's not just by chance that Foreigner chose a rocker ("Say You Will") to introduce its latest album, "Inside Information." The enormous success of the ballads "Waiting for a Girl Like You" and "I Want to Know What Love Is," the biggest hits from the band's last two albums, greatly softened its image. A third ballad smash might have done them in.

Look what happened to Robert Plant.

Plant was the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, the undisputed champs of powerhouse hard rock in the '70s. After Zeppelin broke up in the early '80s, Plant went solo--and cracked the Top 10 with his first two albums.

In 1984, Plant cut a mini-album with a few all-star friends under the name the Honeydrippers. The project yielded a smash single--a soft, melodic remake of the '50s hit "Sea of Love." The song reached No. 3 on the pop chart--and made No. 1 on the "adult contemporary" chart--something that would have been unheard of for Zeppelin. But the record may have confused Plant's long-time fans. His next rock 'n' roll album, "Shaken 'N' Stirred," barely grazed the Top 20.

There are several other types of hits that can hurt more than they help.

Hits that are too similar to an artist's previous records. The Bee Gees made this mistake in 1979 when they released their follow-up to "Saturday Night Fever." Rather than change direction, they came right back with more throbbing, falsetto-laced dance material. The album's biggest hit, "Tragedy," went platinum, but helped wear out the trio's welcome at pop radio.

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