Weirdest pop hits, No. 1

Well, maybe not No. 1, but it’s the first one I’ve written about. And it’s apparently the only No. 1 song Bruce Springsteen ever wrote, and it’s not even his recording of the song.

If you grew up in the ’70s, you heard Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s version of Bruce Springsteen’s (my, what a lot of possessives) Blinded by the Light a couple hundred times. And you were probably too young to appreciate what a strange freaking song it is.

First of all, the Springsteen song itself is a convoluted mess. Picture the song Rosalita with a clumsier arrangement and a vocal straight from the John Fogerty “Bathroom on the Right” school of enunciation.

What it had going for it was a collection of enigmatic lyrics with cool rhyming hooks that stick in your head. That must be what Manfred Mann and whoever was in his band that week heard and decided to build upon. (Best tangent from the band’s history: One-time drummer Chris Slade, who can be heard on Thunderstruck, was let go from AC/DC even though he was considered the best musician in the group. He’s a tad more inventive than Phil Rudd.)

So Mann and vocalist Chris Thompson gave it a go, tossing the song in a completely new arrangement and rejumbling the lyrics. There’s no coherent narrative in place, so why not?

The song has earned a wonderful Wikipedia entry — one of the best I’ve ever seen for a single song. But it only skims the surface of the inherent oddities in the song:

1. Not many songs are built on a spacey keyboard riff that keeps reappearing as the rest of the band abruptly shuts down.

1a. The band abruptly shuts down a lot. The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus structure does not apply whatsover. This is a hodgepodge of partial verses and one-line choruses popping up at random.

2. Somewhere about two-thirds of the way through the song, Mann (presumably) plays Chopsticks on the piano.

3. Thompson’s delivery makes “deuce” sound like “douche.” But in the Springsteen version, I have no freaking clue what he’s saying. “UPPPP ooos veh neh doooze, guh behna dunner inna nyyy!” Of course, I’m the one who thinks The Rising sounds like “come on up, fertilizer.”

4. An ex-girlfriend once insisted to me that this song was a gay anthem. That interpretation hinges on hearing the much-misheard line as “slipped up like a douche” and taking “middle of the night” to be, well, where the sun don’t shine. My guess is this is wishful thinking from a dormmate of ours who insisted every guy was gay. Even if that were true, Springsteen would’ve been way out of his league.

In any case, that would be a new twist on Wikipedia’s note that the title is a reference to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. In fact, everything I found on a search for “blinded by the light homosexuality” led me to some sort of theological debate.

Manfred Mann had a knack for covers. An earlier incarnation of the band had success with Dylan’s Mighty Quinn, and he later recorded a version of the Police’s Demolition Man. If you think that’s strange, check out the other artist to record that song in the early ’80s. That’s right — Grace Jones.

See, this is why I find today’s music scene so boring. You just don’t have anything this bizarre. In my day, the guy who did Doo Wah Diddy Diddy could hit No. 1 with a twisted keyboard reconstruction of a Springsteen tune, a snarling androgynous woman could speak-sing her way through a Police classic, and ELP was covering Aaron Copland. Those were the days.

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One Response to Weirdest pop hits, No. 1

  1. Lex says:

    I’d thought I’d caught you on this one, but if Wikipedia is to be believed — and it’s generally better than my memory of 20-year-old Billboard listings — Springsteen indeed has never written AND RECORDED a song that hit #1 on the Billboard singles chart. I was thinking “Hungry Heart” and “Dancing in the Dark” had, but it was their respective LPs, not the singles.

    Which is fine. If you have to pick, let your LPs go to No. 1. There’s more money for you that way.

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