On June 15, 2014, Casey Kasem, host of the longtime countdown program, AMERICAN TOP 40, passed away at the age of 82. From my first blog post (and prolly some more inbetween then and now), I explained how, in 1979, I was a geeky, lanky and somewhat lost 12-year-old living in Central Maine, had a few friends and not a lot of interest in much of anything, but at some point early that year, I discovered AMERICAN TOP 40, and was glued to it every weekend. Not only could I hear the 40 biggest songs in the country every week, but also Casey’s cool trivia and facts about the songs and the artists, a trait I treasure to this day. For me, the show was No. 1 with a bullet. And still is (thanks to the re-airing of broadcasts of AT40 on iHeart Radio).
In honor of my radio hero, Casey Kasem, for the entire month of June, I will be highlighting a song each day (some days will have two songs!) that peaked in the Top 40 of the BILLBOARD Hot 100 (including five (real) one-hit wonders of the 80s), and with every blog post, just like on AMERICAN TOP 40, the hits will get bigger with each post. On June 1, 2017, I featured a song that peaked at No. 40. On June 30, I’ll feature a “song of the day” that went all the way to No. 1.
As Casey used to say on AT40, “And on we go!”
In his far-too-short lifetime of 52 years, Frank Zappa released a whopping 62 live and studio albums, dating back to 1966 and including his work credited as the Mothers Of Invention. Impressive. And perhaps even more impressive, since 1994 (Frank sadly died of prostate cancer in early December 1993), the Zappa Family Trust has released 47 posthumous albums, for 109 albums total. Incredible.
One of those albums is the only album he released in 1982, SHIP ARRIVING TOO LATE TO SAVE A DROWNING WITCH. And that 34-minute, six-track album contained Frank’s ONLY Top 40 hit on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 – “Valley Girl,” with his daughter, Moon Unit Zappa.
You read that right – Out of 62 albums released while Frank was on this Earth, he only had one Top 40 hit in his American homeland, but I’d almost bet my record collection he was quite alright with that. Before “Valley Girl,” Frank had hit the BILLBOARD Hot 100 twice before (and missed it another two times), reaching No. 86 in 1974 with “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” and No. 45 in 1979 with “Dancin’ Fool.” (Both 1976’s “Disco Boy” and 1980’s “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted” just missed reaching the Hot 100.)
Frank Zappa had his biggest international hit with 1979’s “Bobby Brown,” a song about a wealthy and misogynistic student named Bobby Brown (“the cutest boy in town”). This LGBT-related hit spent six weeks at No. 1 in Sweden and also reached No. 1 in Norway, No. 2 in Austria, No. 4 in Germany and No. 5 in Switzerland.
SHIP ARRIVING TOO LATE TO SAVE A DROWNING WITCH was released in May 1982, and of the six songs on the album, the three songs on Side One (including “Valley Girl”) were studio recordings, while on Side Two, those three songs were all recorded live from his Fall 1981 U.S. tour.
The history of how “Valley Girl” (co-written with his daughter, Moon Zappa) came about in two parts – (1) The song started out from a bass riff Frank had written, and (2) Moon Zappa (then 14 years old) had a desire to work with her dad. And a song was born.
According to Kelly Fisher Lowe, Frank Zappa’s biographer, Frank woke his daughter up in the middle of the night, brought her to the studio (most likely the one in his home) to re-create conversations she would have with her friends. With Frank Zappa not being a fan AT ALL of the San Fernando Valley (he called it “a most depressing place”), this song was an intentional attack on the behavior of those stereotypical “Valley Girls,” and on the slang (or “Valspeak”), of which Moon pretty much supplied Frank all of the content for the song. She had picked up this “Valspeak” from hearing it at parties, bar mitzvahs and the Sherman Oaks Galleria (or “The Galleria” for short, er, Valspeak). Both 1982’s FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and 1983’s VALLEY GIRL (a film inspired by the song of the same name) were shot there.
Moon Unit Zappa was a fan of the legendary KROQ-FM in Pasadena, CA (a station that pre-dates – by over a year – The Beatles’ first No. 1 record in America), and she persuaded the station to play “Valley Girl” during an interview at the station.
Well, it worked. There was suddenly a buzz about it. Sure, it was a huge hit with listeners of the (also) legendary Dr. Demento, but the airplay for “Valley Girl” didn’t stop there. It was heard all over the country.
The 1980s had its share of big “novelty” hits, but 1982 was especially a big year for novelty hit singles, like Buckner & Garcia’s “Pac-Man Fever” (No. 9) and Bob & Doug McKenzie’s “Take Off” (No. 16; featuring Geddy Lee of Rush).
In mid-July 1982, a month or so after its release, “Valley Girl” debuted on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 at No. 75. Five weeks later, it seemed to have stalled at No. 46, but regained its chart “bullet” a week later, and entered the Top 40 at No. 34 in early September 1982.
But, like many “novelty” songs, the “novelty” of it tends to wear off sooner than your traditional hit singles. “Valley Girl” spent two weeks at No. 32 in mid-September 1982, and, “Like, Omigod!” it was gone from the Hot 100 by mid-October 1982. It also reached No. 12 on BILLBOARD’s Mainstream Rock chart.
I don’t know as much about Frank Zappa as I should, but I do know he was an amazing musician and songwriter, and hero of the First Amendment, when he, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister and the late John Denver all took on Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985, opposing censorship of any kind on their record albums and those generic “Parental Advisory” stickers that would appear on the front of those records.
In his testimony before the U.S. Senate, Frank strongly stated, “the PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design.
“It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation. … The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow “J” on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?”
Well, despite the spirited testimony of Frank, John and Dee, “Parental Advisory” stickers did eventually get put on record albums, CDs and cassette tapes. But, when was the last time you honestly saw one those warning stickers on an album? I can’t even remember. I would like to think their testimonies from more than 30 years ago had something to do with that.
SORTA FUN FACT: One of the albums to receive the “Parental Advisory” sticker (a year after it was implemented) was Frank’s 1986 Grammy-winning album, JAZZ FROM HELL (though I couldn’t find a shot of the album with the sticker), and may have gotten the sticker because of the use of the word “Hell,” but most likely for the song title, “G-Spot Tornado,” which is funny, because this was an album of all instrumentals and no lyrics (and definitely no talking about G-Spot Tornadoes). So, riddle me this – how can you have a Parental Advisory sticker for explicit content if there are no lyrics on the entire album?! Good going Tipper – you lost out on listening to a cool, award-winning album of instrumentals because Frank Zappa pissed you off and you slapped the sticker on there anyway. Either that, or she was pissed off because Al never ever slipped her the “G-Spot Tornado.” I’m going with the latter (although I think Al is a lot cooler than he was in 1985).
As much as I love “novelty” songs (including “Valley Girl”), I once read that Frank Zappa, Rock music’s leading satirist for many years, was concerned about the label given to him about being a “novelty artist” or “novelty act.” I mean, would you consider The Beatles to be a “novelty act?” Of course not. But, back in 1966, “Yellow Submarine,” the No. 2 title track of their 1968 animated film, was labeled as a “novelty hit.”
From what I know of Frank Zappa and his work, I would never call him a “novelty act,” though I would call “Valley Girl” a “novelty song,” mainly because – ironic or not – it did hit on a popular time and a popular way of life in the early 80s in that particular part of the country (I’m guessing they still don’t speak “Valspeak” there, do they?). Another thing with novelties – most of them wear off, whether it’s songs or films or love or cars. No one still does the “Macarena” anymore, right? Christ, I hope not. I know Al Gore did once in public back in the day (although I think Al is a lot cooler than he was in 1996).
23 1/2 years after he passed away, Frank Zappa continues to inspire musicians from all over the globe, not to mention relatively new bloggers like myself. Frank, wherever you are, thanks for keeping it real, for all the swell tunes, and for fighting the good fight (with cancer and with the PMRC). You are missed. Of that I’m sure. Totally…