Barry Manilow spent a good deal of time on the road in 2014 and 2015 for what he was calling his ‘farewell tour’. While this may or may not be true based on other musical artist’s habits of making multiple ‘farewell tours’ (ie: Cher, The Rolling Stones), no one can doubt the recorded legacy Manilow will leave behind. His list of hits is much too long to repeat here, but starting with the ode to his dog (Mandy 1974) to his last chart topping hit (Read ‘em and Weep – 1983 on the Adult Contemporary Charts, he was a hit making tour de force. More recently, he reached #2 on the ACC for 2012’s Santa Claus is Coming to Town, a full 30 years after his most prolific decade in the recording industry. But what about all those other memorable tunes he wrote? You know, the annoying ones that you have been bombarded with for years and didn’t even know they were written by Manilow.
Barry Manilow wasn’t always a pop star. He began his musical career quite modestly as the piano playing jingle writer before he became the music arranger for an artist who would rise from cult obscurity to superstar status in both music and films: Bette Midler. His exposure via Midler’s wild stage show and subsequent breakout album The Divine Miss M (and its’ revival WWII hit The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company C) brought him to the attention of the Arista record label and soon after, his first hit record Mandy in 1974. Mandy may have been about his dog, but it wasn’t a dog in terms of record sales! His impressive double album Barry Manilow Live (1977) also served as a kind of greatest hits package for those who weren’t familiar with his songs beyond Mandy. The one track that I will focus on from that live album is simply called the V.S.M.
Manilow introduces the V.S.M. by informing the audience that when they put the Very Strange Medley into the act, his “artsy fartsy friends asked him ‘how could you do such a thing, how could you put such a piece of garbage in your act’ while his trashy friends all said ‘oh I love that medley that you do (audience cheers) and I see you are all sitting out here tonight…so, how could I resist’”. He further explains that “everybody has probably heard these tunes, but they didn’t know that I (Manilow) had anything to do with them” before running through the following snippets (if you didn’t watch TV or listen to radio back in the 1970s, you may have to wait until they resurrect them for some future retro-ad campaign to hear them to the point where they are burned into your brain. Those who did hear them first hand in the 1970s beware, they still have the power to get stuck in your head!):
First up, the Kentucky Fried Chicken jingle (Get a bucket of chicken, finger licking good, Have a barrel of fun, goodbye ho-hum, Say hello to your family, Kentucky Fried Chicken, have a barrel of fun), followed by State Farm Insurance (Whenever you’re driving, Where ever you’re bound, Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there), Stridex (Give your face something to smile about, with Stridex), and of course the ever popular I am stuck on Band-Aid cause Band Aid’s stuck on me. But wait, Manilow is just getting warmed up – next comes the Bathroom Bowl Blues, and odes to Dr. Pepper (It’s not a cola, there are colas by the score, so drink Dr. Pepper, the joy of every boy and girl, It’s the most original soft drink ever in the whole wide world, Dr. Pepper), Pepsi Cola (Join the Pepsi people, feeling free, feeling free, All across the nation, it’s a Pepsi generation, Here today, here to stay, feeling free), and then the big finish (So much life to be lived, So much reason to try, And when you feel it you’ll get, A certain feeling inside . . .). Have you guessed the last one yet? Here is the the more familiar part: You deserve a break today, so get out and get away, to McDonalds, McDonalds, McDonalds (and I am ashamed to say that I typed the last part without having to reference the recording).
Mere words can not explain how strange the power of advertising is when combined with a catchy jingle that makes an ad stick in your head like, well, yes, like the Band-Aid they sang about. The fervor and production his band puts into this segment of their show makes it all the more fun. Who would have thought ads could be fun? You can see a good version of the V.S.M. at www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5Y05rTiTHU although they dropped the Bathroom Bowl Blues from this particular performance.
Some artists refuse to dilute their art for commercial gain. The Doors surviving members never did reconcile with drummer John Densmore after he refused to let The Doors music be used in ads that no doubt would have paid the band enormous amounts of money. Led Zeppelin resisted for a long time before giving in to the money thrown at them by Cadillac. Where does this leave an artist like Manilow who made a living writing commercial jingles before he found pop music success? Counting his money and loving every minute of it is my guess. Pete Townsend of the Who took a little different path when he said, ‘I wrote the songs, why shouldn’t I make money from them?’ You have to give Manilow credit for both embracing his commercial jingle writer past at the same time he is making fun of some of his most memorable (not necessarily most loved) tunes. Farewell Barry Manilow. You may or may not stop touring, but your jingles will live on. I wonder if he will start writing jingles for AARP?