The piano riff, simple 12 notes, endlessly beguiling, rises and falls, and John Waite’s voice breaks across it almost immediately: “falling in love was the last thing I had on my mind”, and then the pace picks up as the drums start. The atmos is clear, oceanic, as the female vocal line starts and the song rushes to its thundering climax.
Yes, it could only be that acme of the strange genre known as powerpop, The Babys’ “Isn’t It Time”, a middling hit in its US home, hitting No. 13, but a No. 1 in Australia. It hit the top spot in March 1978, and stayed on the charts for months, in those days when music moved slowly, attached to things. It’s a classic of the non-punk side of the late ’70s, a song with the lushness of prog rock shoved into the tight form of the three-minute pop song. It was a distant echo of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, of the Beach Boys’ “teenage symphony to God”; it sounds like them all in summary.
The orchestration is perfect, the playing crisp and hard, the backing vocals sexy and smooth, and there’s a sense in the homebrand video — just the band playing — that they know just how good what they’ve got is. Every element of it is taken from somewhere else, down to Waite’s Bowie-esque orange hair, but it all becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Much of what was around it has fallen away, fun but hopelessly dated — Cheap Trick, the Boomtown Rats — but this one slice of perfect pop has, as Rilke said of the work of Rodin, not aged an hour.
I play it regularly as an early evening scene-setter, as the Scotch and Ritalin stolen from my ex’s daughter’s schoolbag kicks in, not simply because it lifts my heart and makes the air flow free, but because it acts as a sort of strange prism of life, and the contemplation thereof. I mean, no one associated with this record ever did anything remotely this good ever again. The band didn’t even write the track, they didn’t produce it, and 90% of this thing is the production. They had one other hit of similar quality and the rest of their music is spangly power pub-rock dregs.
This is their four minutes of greatness, but they are semi-bystanders to it. What’s that like, I’ve always wondered? To have done almost nothing else even remotely of that quality, yet to have achieved a quality few others have? A blessing after all, or a curse, doubly so, for to admit it would sound like rank ingratitude? There is no other field in which the stakes are so hair-raising. One good novel — Catch 22, for example — well, there’s a whole big thing there. A sole hit movie — Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop — can spawn whole genres. Four minutes is not a lot to hang your life on, and you wonder if all concerned don’t sometimes imagine themselves imprisoned within it.
The song was written by Beach Boys contributor Ray Kennedy and Jack Conrad, bassist for The Doors (what a credit — playing the role of Ray Manzarek’s organ pedal); with the exception of “Sail on Sailor” on Holland, neither had other big hits. The tracks were produced by Ron Nevison, a gun sound engineer of the 70s; the Babys album, “Broken Heart”, was his first full production, and this track and the other (Kennedy-written) hit “Everytime I Think of You” are sheer genius, producer’s masterpieces. It led to a huge career but the subsequent discography tells it all: Jefferson Starship, UFO, Styx, etc. Nothing that iconic, nothing so purely produced came his way again.
Again, one asks: is that the sort of thing that tempers life or torments?
Pop songs are four minute utopias; tiny heavens in which you live(d) as a teenager before the scratch of the needle in the core of the 45 brought you back down to earth. There’s a half-dozen songs of that era which strike me as achieving the perfection of the form — pop that is, rock music drained of its 7ths and sync — and not, I think because it’s of my era (they were a little before), but because they were a last gasp of the three-minute guitar song’s ability to do something really new.
From the 50s on, rock-pop went through the standard cycle of forms — primitive, classical, mannerist, baroque — before returning to the primitive again, with the stripped-down songs of New Wave. By then it had incorporated the best flourishes of Wall of Sound, acid, glam, prog rock and the rest. There was nowhere else for it to go, and it went. With the occasional sparkle in the long tail — “Here Comes Your Man”, “Cannonball” — it reverses for one final splutter in Nirvana. Pop’s anti-pop — and yes of course Nevermind is pop. It’s about the impossibility of ascending into that empyrean. There is no heaven, but we have all the lithium you might want.
How strange and simple and innocent those songs, those simple vids look from here. How strange it must be to be John Waite — who had one more No. 1 hit, in ’84 with the execrable “Aint missing you at all” (yes that song is a third of a century old) — and see yourself floating by in that cloud of unknowing. I’m glad we’ve got such piece of the eternal, but I’m not sure I would want to have it overshadowing my life.
The questions that keep going through my mind, hey babe, isn’t it time.