Of Richard Marx, Degrees of Separation, and the Continuum of Musical History

One of my favorite old-school Letterman sketches recently came to mind, one where he presents a series of brief video shots that then freeze to a still at a funny/poignant moment before giving the viewer three choices as to what is occurring in the frozen scenario, (with the correct answer always being “C”). In one particularly funny set-up, he shows a slightly portly and heavily mustachioed man in an airport terminal leering at a tall, shapely and comely blonde.

The questions in this particular sketch went something like, “This man is: (A) A salesman for Black & Decker, (B) Awaiting the next flight to Cleveland, (C) In the upright-and-locked position.” Classic Letterman. This resurrected memories of another classic series of sketches where Letterman ripped on the Lionel Richie hit, “Say You, Say Me”. Letterman declared that this song’s lyric, (“I had a dream, I had an awesome dream”), was in fact the goofiest lyric of 1985. I don’t recall any of the sketches in particular detail, but suffice to say that this theme always made me laugh back in the day. And, it’s definitely a goofy lyric.

The deep recesses of my brain that had forgotten all about Richie, (and his mustache), then reminded me that Richard Marx once sang backup for Richie, (amongst many others), before moving on to pen songs for singers like Kenny Rogers and for 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire soundtrack, and before he moved on yet again to write and perform his own songs. Same old story, but you know how this thing works….if A → B, B→ C, C→ D, and next thing you know you’re spending an evening contemplating the oeuvre and cultural significance of Richard Marx.

Acclaimed producer David Foster was the lead composer on St. Elmo’s Fire, and when one listens to its iconic saxophone riffs, atmospheric keyboards and the percussion of its eminently popular theme song which later became de rigeur in Marx’s string of hits, their familial relationship seems retrospectively obvious. The actual tune co-written by Foster and Marx for the soundtrack, “If I Turn You Away”, is full of instrumentation relatable to 1987’s eponymous release, “Richard Marx”, and in fact shows how underrated Marx was as a frontman when compared to the relatively uninspiring vocals of Vikki Moss.

The theme song of St. Elmo’s Fire was not only an iconic song of the 1980s, it also helped popularize The Killer Saxophone Solos that would later be featured on Top Five singles like “Endless Summer Nights”. Along with the omnipresent sax solo, actors like Rob Lowe and Demi Moore also seeped into our consciousness as they depicted a story of recent Georgetown University graduates in the 1980s entering the real world. Which is to say, this film was more influential than one might think at first glance.

The very real connection between this soundtrack and Marx’s later work is apparent in songs like “Angelia”, (check out the sax solo at the 2:40 mark). Also, in the first few chords of songs like “Hazard”, Marx again showed an affinity for atmospheric keyboards and percussion that became a genre unto themselves in soundscapes found in movies like the 1988 “Rain Man” soundtrack that Hans Zimmer composed. When “Hazard” was released as a single in 1991, however, it was up against a wave that was remaking the face of popular music in America. Let’s just call that wave….Nirvana. Suddenly, not only were the hair bands of the 1980s removed from America’s Zeitgeist, but so were the radio-friendly power chord pop / power ballads of artists like Richard Marx. The times – and fortunately the hairstyles – were a changin’, though…fair enough. Don’t feel bad for Mr. Marx, however. In the interim, Marx had released a record-breaking 7 singles in a row that all reached into the Top Five on the charts. He made bank, I’m sure, and we all had the chance to educate ourselves about the downside of The Mullet. Win, win.

Yes, I realize that I lost some of you at “Lionel Richie”, let alone, “Richard Marx”…but stick with me here. I realize that Richard Marx is a pleasure that probably qualifies as guilty for most of you….but, he shouldn’t. As tastes changed, Mr. Marx regrouped. He composed a song for a talented guy named Justin Timberlake. Ok, it was actually “I Promise You” and it was for that abominable boy band *NSYNC. More recently, he has composed songs for the likes of Luther Vandross and Josh Groban. Ok, I don’t like those artists either. But then, he went and totally redeemed himself by working with Matt Scannell of Vertical Horizon. No, I don’t like Scannell’s music either, but he is my fellow Hoya ….so it all comes back together, St. Elmo’s Fire-style.

And, as musical history marches on, it often comes full circle. And circles are interesting. As earlier discussed, could M83’s “Midnight City” exist without the groundwork laid 26 years earlier by Rob Lowe’s sexualized saxophone stylings, (not to mention its atmospheric keyboards and percussion), as created by David Foster and Richard Marx? The average hipster may not want to acknowledge that linkage, let alone lineage, but as unlikely as the connection may seem upon first blush, one can now proudly exhort the wonders of Richard Marx to hipster-nation based solely upon the genius contained within the Killer Saxophone Solo that Anthony Gonzalez unleashes upon the unwitting in the outro of “Midnight City”. So there you have it, there’s a definite connection…Letterman (late night tv)→ Lionel Richie (All Night Long) → Richard Marx (Endless Summer Nights) → M83 (Midnight City). Yes I still remember every moment of those nights way back….way back when I played the saxophone and the saxophone was cool before it wasn’t and now is again.  I’m glad, though, that even when I played i did so without rocking a mullet.

 

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