If you fall in love with someone or something based on misconceptions, assumptions or false narratives, it generally doesn’t end well. (For example: “This coat will look great on me after I lose some weight.”)
But when you fall in love with a song for inherently false reasons, it makes not a bit of harm or difference.
The text for tonight’s sermon is Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police,” which was starting to fall from the national charts around this time of year in 1979 after peaking in the mid-20s.
(In dear old Allentown, ever slightly behind the times, it was listed as hitbound for the week of Nov. 19, 1979, when the record was fading on the national stage.)
“Dream Police,” like Cheap Trick’s other best records, is a subversive piece of work — a tuneful but paranoid song about being haunted by inescapable demons. It’s one of those songs you can easily let slide by, but that takes on a different dimension if you stop to think about it.
It’s catchy, like songs about girl problems and car problems and high-school problems … except it’s about brain problems.
In the historical mythology I have created, 1979 was an unsettled time — a year of nuclear near-meltdowns, long gas lines, a presidentially declared malaise and the start of the Iranian hostage crisis, not to mention the usual Cold War saber-rattling.
Unsettled times make for unsettled art … and so, what better time for a song about paranoia and fear to hit it big?
(It’s true that disco, one of the least jarring genres ever to gain mass popularity, was still big in ’79. Escapism, I say. Music for people trying to forget about being threatened or unsettled. You can only shake your groove thang against the darkness for so long, though.)
I also note that the Dream Police album was released Sept. 21, 1979, and its title track rode the charts in October and November — months when the weather starts to turn cold, the leaves start to die and the night starts to creep up earlier and earlier. Dark times call for dark music.
So, “Dream Police” fits perfectly into this image of teenage Halloween 1979 I’ve created in my head.
I see kids out not-really-joyriding in the cold night, not bound anywhere in particular, listening to Rockford’s finest on the radio, and feeling uneasy for reasons they can’t quite explain.
Of course, this is complete horseshit.
I realized long ago that, while the woes of the republic register with its occupants, they don’t color everything people do.
People — especially teenagers — don’t let the events of the day affect their perceptions of the world around them. In fact, they can be pretty oblivious when they want to be. So, jangled times do not necessarily promote or support jangled art, no matter how neat that narrative might appear.
I’ve also learned that the time of year has almost no effect on when a record is released — except perhaps for live albums and best-of compilations, which are sometimes timed to appear around the December holidays.
The Dream Police LP is a dramatic example of this. The Interwebs say the songs were recorded in mid-1978, for release late that year or early the next. (“Dream Police” could well have been a Valentine’s Day single, not a Halloween single.)
But late ’78 and early ’79 found Cheap Trick’s At Budokan live album selling briskly as an import from Japan. And when the live album became a Stateside smash, Epic Records pushed back the release of Dream Police to the fall, so as not to cannibalize the sales of At Budokan.
So the association of “Dream Police” with autumn in America has nothing to do with the soul, spirit or content of the song. It’s entirely the product of a big record company trying to nudge its newest golden goose onto a coordinated laying schedule.
So, my hazy historical narrative is Swiss-cheesy and totally at odds with the song’s backstory.
But it doesn’t really matter in the end, because the record delivers the goods. “Dream Police” is still a great, catchy, imaginatively arranged, bitter-edged pop song, and one I can still enjoy without surrounding with self-created nonsense.
At any time of year.