I’ve been thinking of writing a Barry Manilow post ever since I wrote the Christmas one. The man makes the yuletide gay, sure, but what is it about his popular music that is so off-putting that officials in an Australia suburb famously blasted it nightly to keep gangs from congregating…until the neighborhood residents could stand it no longer, that is? (Oh, the things you learn on the Internet!)
Barry’s career spans the mid-1970s to I don’t even know when — he may still be recording for all I know — but he is best known for a string of hits from “Mandy” (released in late 1974) to the end of the decade. Of those, a dozen are ballads, remarkably similar ballads:
- Mandy (#1 in January 1975)
- Could It Be Magic (#6, 1975, though previously released in 1971 and 1973)
- I Write the Songs (#1 in January 1976)
- Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again (#10, 1976)
- This One’s for You (#29, 1976)
- Weekend in New England (#10, 1977)
- Looks Like We Made It (#1, 1977)
- Even Now (#19, 1978)
- Ready to Take a Chance Again (#11, 1978)
- Somewhere in the Night (#9, 1979)
- Ships (#9, 1979)
- When I Wanted You (#20, 1980)
I think anyone can intuitively tell that all of his ballads sound pretty much the same — my friend Lynne and I used to shout out, “Change of key!” at just the right Barry moment whenever he’d be on the radio as we commuted to college together — but a careful (and tedious) study of each of those hits reveals just how formulaic the pattern was. I’m tempted to cue them up on 12 separate YouTube pages and play them simultaneously, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I will.
For starters, all but one are in the 3-to-4-minute range (“Could It Be Magic,” at 4:14, is a bit of an outlier in a couple of ways). The songs’ instrumentation — mainly piano, voice, and strings, building to full orchestral bombast — is nearly identical in all. And the subject matter doesn’t vary much, the vast majority of these being about missing a lost love.
But get this: Every single one of these songs follows the pattern of piano intro, verse, crescendo to chorus, decrescendo to piano and maybe strings, second verse (louder than the first), crescendo to loud chorus, break or bridge and/or dramatic change of key, an even louder chorus, and the big finish, which usually means Barry belts out one long note, then the music swells over and fades out. OK, two of them don’t fade out. But yes, they all have exactly two verses, a chorus, and maybe a short bridge if you’re lucky.
Granted, sometimes the change of key comes with the second chorus, sometimes right after, sometimes in both places, and in rare instances, not at all, so they’re not exactly the same in that respect. “Could It Be Magic” doesn’t have a change of key, it just repeats the chorus over and over, louder each time. Because it was recorded first, it didn’t quite follow the “Mandy” formula. But, once he hit #1, Mr. M stuck with what worked.
Barry infused some of these songs with unintended irony — “this one’ll never sell,” he sings in “This One’s for You,” his first single to not crack the top 20; “and nothing is rhyming,” he rhymes with “climbing” in “Mandy.” The song title was changed from its original “Brandy” so as to not be confused with “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, though they needn’t have bothered choosing a new name that rhymes with the original one since it doesn’t rhyme with anything else in the song. They could have called it “Phyllis” and it would have worked about the same. My mom would have liked that.
But the biggest irony of all is “I Write the Songs.” Sure, Barry Manilow writes some of his own stuff. He co-wrote most of his hit non-ballads and a couple others, notably “Could It Be Magic” (though, to be fair, Chopin helped a bit), not to mention some very catchy jingles for Band-Aid, McDonald’s, and State Farm. But most of his famous ballads, including all of his biggest hits — “I Write the Songs” among them — were not written by Barry Manilow.
I think it’s a pretty safe bet he arranged them all, though, God bless ‘im.