Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Music Box: Kim Carnes

I've kind of been on this weird Kim Carnes kick lately. When I admitted as much on my Facebook status last week -- Kenneth is inexplicably on a Kim Carnes kick, an artist he didn't give that much time even in her heyday -- my brother Bill quickly responded back with a rather accusatory, "You gave WAY too much time to her in her heyday!"

Maybe he's right, although it's taken me nearly 30 years to figure out why. I admit I loved her duet with Kenny Rogers ("Don't Fall in Love With a Dreamer") and thought her rendition of Smokey Robinson's "More Love" was even better than the Miracles'. But as my tastes moved more toward the New Wave movement that was in full bloom at that time, I wasn't exactly buying any of Kim's records. It wasn't till she completely took over the airwaves during the summer of '81 with her icy New Wave-ish classic, "Bette Davis Eyes," that I really began to take notice. Just who was this woman, really? Suddenly this artist who I thought was the female equivalent of Rod Stewart seemed more like she was angling to be the new Blondie -- at a time when Blondie herself had decided she didn't want to be her anymore. While Kim was blond and burning up the charts with "Mistaken Identity," Debbie opted to follow up 1980's smash "AutoAmerican" ("The Tide Is High," "Rapture") with the brown-haired "Koo Koo." While I never missed a chance to crank "Bette Davis Eyes" on the radio in my brother's Toyota Tercel, I still wasn't completely sure what to make of it all. And neither was Debbie Harry.

She's with the band: Kim Wilde goes "solo"
Kim Carnes adopted a vacant stare, then took up occupancy at the top of the charts

While in later years she would find enormous flattery in other artists' emulation of her, back in '81 she was quoted as being none too pleased that people like "Kim Carnes and Kim Wilde" were copying Blondie's style. (Might the real resentment have been that they were selling albums, something Debbie Harry no longer was?) But what would this Blondie clone do for an encore? Coming up with a follow-up to a song as HUGE as "Bette Davis Eyes," which spent nine nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 (bumped for a week by the infectious "Stars on 45 Medley"!), was not going to be easy. But I was dying to see what else was on this peculiar album that had become a monster hit in its own right.

"Draw of the Cards" was picked as the second single and, just like that, Kim's momentum came to a screeching halt. The history books say it peaked at No. 28 on the Billboard singles chart, but I honestly don't remember ever hearing it on the radio. The song AND video definitely seemed to be going for the "Rapture" vibe, but it was all atmosphere and no substance. (Even worse, no fun.) When I finally got around to hearing the album I realized the "Mistaken Identity" title said it all. Kim wasn't really trying to be Blondie, she was still the same AOR singer/songwriter she'd always been ("Break the Rules Tonight" is pure honky tonk, "Still Hold On" is a power ballad and "Don't Call It Love" is just as country as when Dolly Parton recorded it a few years later). If anything, she seemed like was going through an identity crisis of her own ("Mistaken Identity" was in fact her sixth solo album, and she'd also been in the '60s folk group New Christy Minstrels), or, more likely, was just following her producer's lead on what was hot in music at the time. (Val Garay would then use his magic to turn the punkish Motels into Billboard stars with "All Four One" the following year.) When I finally heard Jackie DeShannon's original version of "Bette Davis Eyes," all country lounge act, it actually sounded exactly like a Kim Carnes song -- Kim Carnes Version 1.0, that is. ("Draw of the Cards" as a single made a lot more sense as it was the only other track on the album that had a modern vibe to it, so the label probably had no choice but to give the "Bette Davis" fans something that sounded like it was by the same artist.)

Still, my brother was right. Even though I'd realized Kim wasn't the New Wave goddess I'd been duped into thinking she might be, I still stood by her for awhile. The following year I raced out and bought the 45 of "Voyeur." While it sounded like what the follow-up to "Bette Davis Eyes" SHOULD have sounded like (all synths and spooky vocals), even today the lyrics seem way too risque (or risky) for Top 40 radio (this was PRE-MADONNA, after all), and it stalled at No. 29. In '83, she returned with "Cafe Racers" and pretty much dropped the New Wave pretense. The ballad "I Pretend," the last 45 of hers that I bought, was a Top 10 hit on the Adult Contemporary chart, although years later I heard the song "Hurricane" (also on "Cafe Racers") and realized -- at long last -- that THAT was the perfect song to follow up "Bette Davis Eyes." (Only two years too late.) Kim would only have one more "real" hit (the fun "Crazy in the Night" from "Barking at Airplanes" went to No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985) . But she will forever have the second-biggest selling song of the 1980s, beaten only by "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John, an artist she was far more similar to than "Bette Davis Eyes" would have led us to believe.

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    Matthew said...

    I find "Bette Davis Eyes" annoying to listen to now, though I loved it at the time. I prefer the derivative "Black Cars" by Gino Vannelli. My fave Kim stuff is "Voyeur" and especially the fact that she ably covered my personal passion, the song "Looker," originally by Sue Saad from the outrageously camp film of the same name. (And stop picking on The Girlie Show—that's still one of my favorite Madonna tours. It blew me away when I saw it live. The DVD sucked, though.)

    nojarama said...

    I was also a member of the Kim Carnes is "new wave" (totally different head... totally!) bandwagon as well. I also enjoyed "Invisible Hands (the dance mix was wonderful). And don't forget she did that very spooky song "Looker" for the very spooky film "Looker" that was played to death on cable back in the day!

    Dan said...

    Great writeup on Kim Carnes - have you heard her duet with Barbra Streisand, "Make No Mistake, He's Mine"? It is one of those pairings that really shouldn't work, but for whatever reason it does.