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The greatest vocalist of the 80s

by Peter Nuttall 3 days ago in 80s music

Could it really be Toni Basil?

The greatest vocalist of the 1980s?

I don't know if you ever listen to music with the window open but it does test your faith in the songs you listen to. I was sitting happily in the bath, listening to a playlist of random 80s songs when on came 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' by Tight Fit. Unable (or unwilling) to get out of the hot water to find my phone and skip the track, I listened through, half-hoping there was nobody passing outside who would judge my taste in music and half-loving the song which was a massive number 1 hit in 1982.

Then, 'A Town called Malice' came on; I dislike The Jam but it's a song which is considered 'cool' so even though I don't like the song, I didn't mind if someone heard it through the window. Then... 'Mickey' by Toni Basil came on. For a moment, I felt like I should just slip under the water and pretend I wasn't even there. But then something occurred to me...

The most popular songs at the turn of the 80s all seemed to be those which became familiar quite quickly. 'Hands Up' by Ottowan, 'Iko Iko' by Natasha, 'Just can't get enough' by Depeche Mode, 'Prince Charming' by Adam Ant, 'Can you Feel it' by the Jacksons, 'I could be Happy' by Altered Images, 'You might need somebody' by Randy Crawford and 'Kids in America' by Kim Wilde. They all repeat a phrase as their hook which makes them stick in your head. 'Hands up, baby Hands up' ... 'Prince Char-ming... Prince Charming' ... 'We're the Kids in America (Woah) We're the Kids in America (Woah)'.

By the end of these songs, you're already singing along. That makes it stick in your head and when it next comes on the radio, you feel that warm glow of familiarity - and when you do your next shop in Woolworths, there it is on the shelf, ready to be purchased with your massive bag of pick 'n mix. Now, the thing about 'Mickey' is, it's deceptive.

I'm going to go a bit music snob here but bear with me. There are things musicians appreciate about music that non-musicians can't. I once had an argument with a non-musician about whether Noel Gallagher was a good guitarist. My point was, to my friend he sounded like a good guitarist but as my friend had never picked up a guitar, he could have no idea whether Noel was good technically. A guitar teacher could watch Noel fumbling around the fretboard and point out all sorts of bad techniques. If he sounds good though, why does it matter. It doesn't of course. Gary Numan is the first to admit he's not a great musician but that didn't stop him writing two massive number 1 smash hit singles in the late 70s.

My point being, Toni Basil wasn't a vocalist first and foremost; she was a choreographer (much like Paula Abdul, who I'll mention in a moment). What she had buckets of however, was personality. To a musician, I'm imagining writing the vocal tune down as dots on a page; but you can't, even with embellishments. You'd have to write the main notes she hits on the page and use the musical instruction 'expressivo' which allows the musician to take certain liberties with articulation and dynamics. In the classical baroque period, composers (such as Bach) didn't use dynamic markings on the music (mainly because the instruments used couldn't 'express', like the Harpsichord for example). If you listen to the way Toni Basil delivers the vocal in 'Mickey', it's a performance. It's almost acted.

Her accent brings life to the words, the way she emotes is unique, the glissandos (almost portamento in places) and throat singing isn't something you can write down, yet she absolutely brings the song to life in a way Racey couldn't when it was a track on their 'Smash and Grab' album originally titled 'Kitty'. Paula Abdul was by no stretch a vocalist either; she was a choreographer who looked a bit like Toni Basil. She went for more contemporary stylised songs like 'Straight up' and 'Rush Rush'. One of my favourite Paula Abdul songs is 'Vibeology' - which has so many parallels to 'Mickey' it's a bit spooky. Paula almost acts the song with yelps and talking and accentuated singing. It's performed. Whether this was all Paula or whether she was produced in that manner is irrelevant; it's a wonderful piece of pop music and a vocal performance full of personality which you couldn't dream of replicating at a Karaoke.

In conclusion, Toni Basil remains one of the greatest vocalists of the 80s. It's about the song, the tune, the production, the vocal and the personality of the singer, the band or the group. Bay City Rollers had so many hits because of their personalities and image, rather than their songs - which could be said of a lot of boy/girl bands in the 90s and beyond. David Bowie remained interesting even when he was releasing songs in the 70s which were too weird even for his loyal fans. Madonna managed to last forty years by adapting and always being original and interesting - even when the songs went a bit dull in the 2000s. Tina Turner isn't the greatest singer of all time by any means, but she's one of the greatest vocalists in music history. John Lennon couldn't sing, Bob Dylan can barely speak, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Bjork, James Brown and Kurt Cobain are all about their unique personalities coming out in their voices. Being able to hold a note like Whitney Houston is over-rated. I'll take Gary Numan, Bono or Alexander O'Neal over Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey and Prince. Actually - I'll take them too - I'm not fussy.

So if you're in the bath and a song comes on that you're ashamed to enjoy, turn it up! Embrace your crap taste in music! Good music is everything you like listening to - whoever is outside probably secretly likes it too.

80s music
Peter Nuttall
Peter Nuttall
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Peter Nuttall

I love reading stories which contain elements that couldn't happen in real life. Ghosts, time travel, super heroes - so that's also what I write. That and various genres of humorous non-fiction.

I've got more going on at www.peternuttall.net

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