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.  ↩