Today, Soundcheck is debuting a new, occasional series called That Was A Hit?!?, in which we examine the baffling success of pop hits that probably should never have been pop hits. In our inaugural installment, Billboard magazine's Joe Levy delves into a few songs that strangely found themselves near the top of the charts, including Bloodrock's 1971 hit "D.O.A."
"Laying here looking at the ceiling," goes the first line of "D.O.A." by Bloodrock, which could be a pretty promising start for a Top 40 single from 1971, especially since just a few seconds later the singer is telling us about something warm flowing down his fingers. Hey, maybe little explicit, but it is the ‘70s, the decade where soft-rock come ons that started with stuff about climbing on rainbows progressed quickly to blunt propositions like, "If you’re wondering where this song is leading, I’d like to make it with you."
Thing is, the second line isn't about a warm wind blowing the stars around or pina colada fueled walks in the rain. It’s about a hospital attendant pulling a sheet across the singer's chest. That warm stuff causing the sticky fingers? Human blood!
"D.O.A." is definitely deserves a nomination for the strangest hit of all time: 4:35 of plodding chiller-theater rock sung from the POV of a guy who’s been in plane crash. "I try to move my arm and there’s no feeling, and when I look I see there’s nothing there." His girlfriend is dead next to him. The chorus? "I remember! We were flying along, and hit something in the air." Bloodrock were distressingly literal, so along with ambulance sirens you get details like "the sheets are red and moist where I’m lying" and the climatic line, "God in Heaven, teach me how to die." It’s actually kind of simple: First you stop breathing...
It’s hard to imagine something this gruesome on the radio, let alone on enough radios across the nation to climb the chart. Thing is, it was a No. 36 hit for six-shaggy haired dudes from Ft. Worth, Texas, one of whom was a would-be pilot who’d actually seen a friend die in a small plane crash and written “D.O.A.” in response.
Listening to it now, there is little accounting for its success. You can rationalize historically by citing the teen tragedy songs of the '50s like "Tell Laura I Love Her” and “Teen Angel,” and the way the same sort of songs returned in the ‘70s with weirdo soap opera smashes like “Run Joey Run” and “Billy Don’t Be A Hero.” You can conjure up Black Sabbath’s doom rock and Alice Cooper’s horror show theatrics.
But teen tragedy songs were love songs, Black Sabbath had riffs, and Alice Cooper a sense of humor. “D.O.A.” is just blood soaked doggerel. How’d it become a hit in the year of Three Dog Night's “Joy to the World,” The Carpenters' “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and John Denver's “Take Me Home Country Roads”? Well, actually, you can kind of see how the domination of that sort of "C’mon, get happy" pop would leave you craving some bad vibes. But “the sheets are red and moist where I’m lying”? Not exactly Top 40 fodder.
Hits you can’t believe happened tend to fall into two categories: Novelty songs and crap. Novelty songs can continue to amaze eons after they first worked their magic -- in the days before you could pass GIFs and “Harlem Shake” videos phone to phone, the radio was one place we gathered to indulge our our collective thirst to explore the mysteries of the weird and funny.
Listen to “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” (No. 22 in 1966), a mild mannered bit of bizzaro psychedelic folk from Norma Tanega. Almost half a century after it first appeared, it’s still capable of delivering ontological joy. Tenega upends whole categories of being just by walking down the street with a dog who is a good old cat! When the KLF enlisted Tammy Wynette to take them to Mu Mu Land 25 later they may well have been trying solve this very riddle.
Of course, you also can’t underestimate our collective urge to collect garbage and elevate it to treasure status, if only for a moment. Twenty-three years later, it still amazes me that Candyman’s “Knockin’ Boots” — a litany of flaccid come ons like “Rest your breast on my chest, yes, I’m impressed” — spent almost half a year on the charts and went top ten.
Musically, lyrically and morally it is the worst rap single of 1990, and please remember that this is the year when Vanilla Ice killed your brain like a poisonous mushroom. How did we let this grievous error of public taste into our lives? One day we all we all look back at the life and career of Donald Trump and ask ourselves the very same question.
One of the great joys of pop music is that it continues to surprise, to shift in unexpected ways. Because hits manufacture their own logic through repetition, it’s easy to believe the old mass-culture critique that the hits themselves are manufactured, that we’re being force fed dumbed-down pleasures by a mendacious pop-culture industry.
The latest to argue this point is Rick Moody in Salon, who claims critics who appreciate Taylor Swift have lowered their standards to accept the more conservative music forced on them by a music industry unable to take risks due to its economic desperation. This is pop hating at its most basic. But if you’d listened to the Lumineers a year ago, or Gotye, or PSY, you’d never have guessed any of those artists would have had hits that defined 2012. Each one is different, and none exactly target a mainstream American audience.
If you love pop music, this is what keeps you coming back to the party: You think you know exactly what’s coming up next, and then the tune changes.