Day: November 8, 2023

Reaching for the Stars, Vol. 93

Chart Week: November 5, 1983
Song: “Automatic Man” – Michael Sembello
Chart Position: #34, 7th week on the chart. This was the song’s peak.

A quick RFTS to fill the place of the Friday Playlist as we are taking an adult fall break for the next few days.

The 100th entry in this series is getting very close. I’ve been reading through most of the previous posts, both to refresh my memory and to look for trends. When we hit the century mark, I’ll pull together some stats and observations to share.

For this week’s edition, we hit a familiar topic: a forgotten song by an artist generally assumed to be a One Hit Wonder.

Michael Sembello was a musical prodigy.[1] By his mid-teens he was already serving as a session guitarist for established stars. When he was 17, Stevie Wonder invited him to contribute to two songs on Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Two years later Sembello was a featured artist on Wonder’s mega-classic Songs in the Key of Life, playing on every track and earning a songwriting credit for “Saturn.” He continued to work with Wonder through the remainder of the Seventies. He also wrote and produced for other artists, including Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

In 1983, he recorded his first solo album, Bossa Nova Hotel. Through a series of industry connections one of its cuts, “Maniac,” was added to the soundtrack for Flashdance. You may have heard it.

“Maniac” hit #1 for two weeks, was nominated for both Grammy and Academy awards, and landed at #9 on the final Hot 100 of 1983. For better or worse, depending on your perspective, it is one of the most recognizable and unforgettable songs of the decade.

“Maniac” was officially a single from the Flashdance LP, as Bossa Nova Hotel did not hit record stores until September 1983. Sembello warned people that he was not going to release another song that sounded like it. He wanted listeners to forget about his big hit and instead focus on his wide-ranging talent.

That should have been a clue that his next single would be a dud.

This song…oooof. It is cheesy as all get-out. At the same time, it is so blandly anonymous its cheese almost doesn’t register. I’ve listened to it several times this week, and each time my brain thinks it is hearing “Number One” by Chaz Jankel, one of the featured songs in the movie Real Genius. Sembello’s voice is less processed here than “Maniac,” and it comes across slighter because of it. Whether you liked “Maniac” or not, it was a song that grabbed you and forced its way into your head. Nothing about it is compelling enough to register and create long-term memories. It didn’t help that “Automatic Man” lacked the connection to the visuals of Jennifer Beals’ (and her dance double) scenes in Flashdance that “Maniac” had.[2]

The video, though? It is amazing! I had never seen it before this week. I’m am prepared to say it is one of the greatest videos ever made. There is just so much confusing and bizarre stuff going on that you can’t look away. Kind of the total opposite of the song.

This was the final charting single of Sembello’s solo career, and it dropped out of the Top 40 after just two weeks. He continued to work with other artists, most notably Chaka Khan and New Edition. But he never re-captured that magic from the summer of 1983. One critic called Sembello “…Michael McDonald with a rhythm machine, but that would be unnecessarily cruel to McDonald. And the rhythm machine." Well, I think that was unnecessarily cruel. Sembello did some cool things in his career. This song was not one of them. 3/10

  1. Another repeating theme here. In my post about Charlie Sexton, I specifically compared him to Michael Sembello. And a young Ollie Brown was also partially discovered by Stevie Wonder.  ↩

  2. Jennifer Beals is an underrated foxy chick of the Eighties.  ↩

High School Hoops Chronicles, Season One, Volume One

Welcome to the first post in a new, recurring series in these parts. L started her high school basketball career Tuesday night, and I think that deserves a clearly identified set of entries to document her adventures.

The season opener was against the Jesuit school not too far from our house, BPHS. We have good friends who have a son who goes there and it was fun to see him working as a team manager when we walked in. He was in C’s class at St P’s, I coached him in soccer a couple times, and we are still close with his parents. He ran over and said hello and gave C a hug, while his mom showed up later and sat with us.

When we got to our seats L was trying to get my attention from across the court as they warmed up. She was saying something with exaggerated mouth movements. At first I wondered if she was telling me she forgot her water bottle, which she did for their scrimmage two weeks ago. But C caught on to what she was saying quicker, “Oh, she’s starting!” That was my expectation, but I could tell L was excited about it, so I gave her a big thumbs up.

What gets a thumbs down, though, was BPHS’ sound system not working. They lined the teams up to announce starters, paused for a few minutes, and when they couldn’t get the microphone to work scrapped introductions. So we were robbed of hearing her name called before her first high school game. I will hold this against BPHS as long as I live.

On to the game. CHS won the tip, L got the ball, and she sat up the offense. Keep in mind every day when I pick her up from practice she complains how they only work on defense and haven’t done anything on offense. I figured this was a slight exaggeration, but I’m not there. Anyway, she dribbled to the right wing, stopped, waited for a cutter who wasn’t sure what to do, and tried to perform one of the worst dribble handoffs I’ve ever seen. The girl guarding L ripped the ball away and headed up court. One play, one turnover. Not the start I was hoping for.

But L raced back and blocked that girl’s shot! She doesn’t get a lot of blocks so that was a solid recovery.

The whole game had a ragged quality like that play. Lots of tossing and hoping instead of smart passes on offense. BPHS was very physical on defense – I wish they handed out programs so I could see how many of their girls were sophomores and juniors – and any half-assed offense by CHS was blown up. The Braves led by five after the first quarter, seven at halftime, and nine at the end of the third quarter.

BPHS hit the first shot of the fourth quarter to go up 11. The key to their lead was hitting four threes to CHS’ zero. That math adds up, I double-checked.

With about four minutes left it was still a nine-point game. Then something happened, I’m not sure what, and the Irish started playing better offense and getting stops on the other end.

With just under 2:00 left we trailed by five and were inbounding under our own basket, L throwing the ball in. The first attempt got blown up, as L missed an open cutter then tried to force it to our tallest girl inside. A loose ball went off the defense and we got another chance. This time L hit our center, a sophomore from St P’s, and T hit the shot. Down three.

After forcing a five-second call on defense, we had a possession that was truly crazy. It was a wild swing of bad passes, near steals, and a couple terrible shots with offensive rebounds sprinkled in. Eventually L got the ball on the baseline with a lane to the hoop. She drove, flipped it up-and-in, and the margin was down to one with under 30 seconds left.

On the next BPHS possession we got a steal and seemed to have an open layup to take the lead. Only our girl got completely blown up by three defenders. The referee indicated that one of the girls got all ball, which she probably did, but ignored the other two who absolutely wiped our girl out.

I started laughing. I remember well from my sports writing years that refs in JV games do everything they can to get those games over shortly after 7:00 so the varsity girls can have 20 minutes of warmups and then start right at 7:30, even if that means swallowing their whistles on close plays. It was already after 7:10 and the refs knew their job was to avoid overtime.

So CHS is inbounding under our own basket again. We called a timeout and the varsity coach jumped into the huddle to draw something up. It ended up being the same play we had run the last two attempts, only with a couple girls flipped to new spots. L found her old Panther pal again, T hit the contested shot, and we were up one with :07 left. Pandemonium on our side!

After a timeout, BPHS got a relatively open look near the rim by their strongest player. She had to rush her shot, it didn’t hit any rim, and our girls ran around screaming like they had won City when the buzzer sounded.

An exciting and entertaining if not aesthetically pleasing game.

That layup was L’s only basket of the game, going 1–5 from the floor. She also had 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 2 turnovers, that one block, and one foul. I wasn’t tracking minutes but she played around 20 minutes of the 24-minute game. She, like all of her teammates, struggled on offense. She looked nervous early and never seemed to get comfortable. But her defense was really solid. I’ll get more into that in a minute.

After she came back from the locker room and found us she said she played terrible, “I had so many turnovers!” To be fair she made some bad passes that got knocked around before we re-gained possession that didn’t count as official turnovers. But I pointed out she also had three assists and played solid defense. When we got home I told her how good her defense was and she said “That’s the best defense I’ve ever played.” Again, more on that in just a sec. She also told us how nervous she was when the game started, which is unusual for her.

The varsity game was also very entertaining. CHS got up 11 early, but BPHS steadily clawed back into it. The Irish led by one at halftime, trailed by one going into the fourth, and were down by three midway through the quarter. We went on a 10–0 run to take the lead and ended up winning by eight. Our best player, a junior shooting guard, had 24 points. When I told L that this morning she said, “You see what I have to guard every day in practice? She is so good.” I think having to try to slow J down in practice has tightened up L’s defensive game. J also, apparently, guards the hell out of L, so maybe once her nerves calm down and the team is running better team offense, that will provide some benefits in L’s game, too.

Game one in the books, both JV and varsity are 1–0. Not a great performance by L, but she played her best in the game’s biggest minutes. It wasn’t bad for her first high school game.

We have another road game on Thursday, but I will be in Florida that night so no breakdown for it. The girls have a week off before their third game, so your next update will come Thanksgiving week. I promise they won’t all be this long. Unless the games are good enough to warrant 1000-plus words, of course!

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