Top Ten MOR Anthems
ere in sunny Melbourne we have a fabulous ‘classic hits’ station called Gold 104.3FM. Their station promos are pastiches of artists as far reaching as Nick Lowe, Meatloaf and Christopher Cross; you know, some session singer barking “GOLD ONE-OH-FOOUR” to the ‘tune’ of “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”. I wholeheartedly credit Gold with nurturing my love of music and, to a lesser extent, my music-writerly side. Of course there were other catalysts (books, knowledgeable friends, Video Hits, Almost Famous), but it was Gold that drew me away from a constant diet of show tunes and movie soundtracks and into the world of classic rock. Of course, like any classic hits radio station, in addition to the “proper” classics like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Who, etc, you can expect a hefty dose of songs that have become classics by either shifting millions of units (regardless of actual musical or artistic merit), or through gaining ubiquity through advertising or licensing deals—but mostly because they are pop songs so universal (and perhaps non-threatening?) that every man and his dog can find something to relate to within them. I suppose you could call it MOR, which in my books is really just AOR that’s taken a turn for the bland.
Now, I’m the first to agree that the majority of MOR is just aural slop, made for sound tracking having the roof tiles resealed and the search for the ultimate in soft yoghurt. Of course, MOR is also a label that is largely subjective, though there are certainly artists that everyone agrees deserve the title. Some bands, like Foreigner, were always MOR, some, like The Four Seasons, ended up there in the twilight years of their career, and some, like ELO or Sniff And The Tears, have become MOR purely because advances in song writing and production values have left them behind in classic hits perpetuity. But what’s especially fun about listening to Gold (or your own substitute) is waiting for those instances where a band or artist gloriously transcends their MOR status for one brief shining moment: these are the MOR anthems. They are songs that, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t have been as good as they were, or maybe even aren’t that good, but still inspire in the listener all manner of clenched-fist sing-along, especially when driving. It is a realm where taste and self-consciousness need to be put on hold, for attempting to rationalise belting out “When I See You Smile” at the stop lights, well, therein madness lies. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in his and Richard Rogers’ proto-MOR anthem “Some Enchanted Evening”, “Who can explain it / Who can tell you why / Fools give you reasons / Wise men never try”: just give in and enjoy with me… The Top Ten MOR Anthems!
10. Bad English – “When I See You Smile”
The power ballad always has the potential to be the ultimate MOR anthem. There aren’t too many that can really claim to be more than syrupy, soupy exercises in manipulation and modulation—and most are so ridiculous (“November Rain”, “Love Is Only A Feeling”) that they couldn’t even be classified as MOR—but some are so gloriously entrenched in housewife-stirring strings and non-threatening machismo that they certainly fit this Top Ten’s prerequisites. One such moment of unabashed lighters-in-the-air dumbness is Bad English’s “When I See You Smile”. From the “Days Of Our Lives” piano refrain to the thinly recorded guitars to the harmonised chorus, it’s a masterpiece of should-know-better karaoke.
9. Sniff ‘N’ The Tears – “Driver’s Seat”
A loopy proto electro jig, “Driver’s Seat” is a particular classic hits beast—a MOR anthem and a one hit wonder. It’s also one of those anthems that doesn’t have a shoutable chorus (apart from “DRIVER’S SEAT!”) so much as it does a series of musical cues that are eminently singable. Get three or so people in the car (or in a club at about 2am) and you can be sure that someone will sing the “da nana, na nana, naaaa” riff, someone will holler “Driver’s seat!” and everyone will either sing or whistle the “bloop” noises. Come on, I know you know what I’m talking about.
8. Christopher Cross – “Ride Like The Wind”
Yes, Cross was spectacularly successful during his early years (five Grammies and an Academy Award, no less), but his oeuvre was truly MOR: I mean, “Sailing”? “Arthur’s Theme”?? Though it was also a big hit, “Ride Like The Wind” is different in that you can sing the whole song in true ripsnortin’ anthem fashion; Cross takes no time to get to the crescendo, singing the whole damn thing like his life depends on it—and, of course, so do you. And if you’re not the lead-singing type, you can always join in on the hilarious Chicago-esque backing vocals (“Such a long way to gooooo”). And then there’s the “ba da da da” breakdown…
7. Steve Winwood – “While You See A Chance”
By the ‘80s, Winwood—once the fifteen-year-old organ prodigy of Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’”, not to mention Traffic, Air Force and Blind Faith—had truly descended into the land of MOR/AOR; his outmoded solo return in the late ‘70s was overshadowed by punk and, dismayed, hid away from music. His return in 1980 had updated his sound, his trademark organ/keys playing freshened with synthesisers, and “While You See A Chance” was its triumphant single. It’s an irresistible song, from the whooping synth riff to the ecstatic chorus—and, in truly transcendent MOR fashion, though “Valerie” and “Higher Love” were entertaining, was never really topped.
6. John Farnham – “A Touch Of Paradise”
One of the great things about MOR anthems is that they aren’t afraid to be, well, beautiful. I don’t mean ‘Beautiful Music’ in the supper-club muzak sense, but music that—freed from the knowing, self-aware constraints of ‘cool’—resonates with emotions that, trashed by white trash wedding requests and Hallmark Cards, we might otherwise be ashamed to indulge in. By any rational, rock-snobbish measure, “A Touch Of Paradise” (produced in the midst of Farnham’s mega-selling yet undeniably adult-contemporary ‘80s) shouldn’t be as fabulous as it is: it’s stuffed with syn-drums, tourism commission backing vocals, even a tenor sax solo. BUT—it’s bloody exquisite. Much (nay, all) of this is due to John Farnham’s impassioned vocal, and the kind of hardcore romance (“You touched my hand / And I woke up shaking… All I do is look into your eyes”… sob, sniff) that is apparently illegal these days unless you’re reading Mills & Boon.
5. Celine Dion – “Think Twice”
The French Canadian is surely the undisputed female heavyweight champion of MOR, non? Though she’s had many overdriven mega-ballads, it’s “Think Twice” that really transcends her back catalogue. More importantly, it inspires passionate sing-alongs in the listener (not to mention air guitar—check that wailing middle eight solo!) regardless of the artist’s shopping mall soundtrack credentials—even Celine can’t get a hold of herself, letting rip with a mighty “No, no, no, no!” that must have left the nannas scratching their heads. The ubiquity of “My Heart Will Go On” notwithstanding, “Think Twice” was really the first and last time that Dion broke free from her MOR shackles in really spectacular style.
4. The Beach Boys – “Kokomo”
Open the encyclopaedia and look up “Song Transcending A Band’s Shithouse Period” and chances are you’ll find The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo”. This is probably the only song in my Top Ten that I actually think is a piece of crap, but (like Jagermeister and cheeseburgers) I still can’t resist it—which I probably put down to the ridiculously sublime sax solo (a recurring theme in the MOR anthem) more than the actual lyrics or the fact that the Beach Boys sound completely anaesthetised. Despite my hatred for the song, “Kokomo” seems to be universal enough to suck in drunken revellers as well as bored housewives and interstate truck drivers—anthemic, even.
3. The Four Seasons – “Who Loves You”
We’re reaching the money end of the Top Ten now, and what better song to kick off the Final Three with than Franki Valli and The Four Seasons’ masterpiece of MOR madness. “December, 1963 (Oh What A Night)” was probably the bigger hit, but it was “Who Loves You” that delivered the group back into the charts in the mid-‘70s, and it was “Who Loves You” that really stepped outside the group’s by then guaranteed MOR status. Despite counting something like four key-changes and completely inexplicable funk breakdown, the song contains one of the greatest AM radio rock choruses of all time.
2. Chicago – “Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry”
Their guitarist Terry Kath tragically dead in 1978, their twelfth record Hot Streets (their first non-Top 10 charting LP since 1969) having started the slow sink into MOR nothingness and sending the next three the same way, by 1982 Chicago had nothing left to lose. Enter producer David Foster, who magicked up Chicago 16, and its leading single, “Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry”. As MOR anthems go, not to mention comebacks, it was a ‘Eureka!’ moment. It is a masterwork of MOR; oddly enough for the musician’s band, stuffed full of synthesised instruments and over-produced drums, and pushing co-vocalist Peter Cetera forward as the band’s star. Its appeal is far-reaching: my Dad and I have often enjoyed driving along belting out the song’s over-the-top chorus, countless karaoke fans and Idol contestants have tackled the song’s three gear changes, and Az Yet updated it for ‘90s MOR R&B; and further success.
1. Foreigner – “I Want To Know What Love Is”
The absolute, stone-cold classic of MOR, “I Want To Know What Love” completely transcends Foreigner’s shonky credentials (excluding the brilliant “Cold As Ice”), the stinky stigma of power ballads, even MOR itself. The Darkness’ Justin Hawkins has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, open with his praise of the song, describing it as “beautiful”. Recorded with the New Jersey Mass Choir, 1984’s “I Want To Know…” capitalised on the new power ballad direction that ‘82’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You” had set down. From the low-key organ accompanying Lou Gramm’s confessional intro to the ecstatic finale, the whole song is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. Much like Farnham’s “Touch Of Paradise”, it’s also notable for the way in which it embraces love and romance; though time and self-consciousness may have rendered lines like “Through the clouds I see love shine/It keeps me warm as life grows colder” a little on the cheesy side, at its heart the song is true. If you haven’t howled along to “I Want To Know What Love Is” and performed accompanying interpretive dance, you haven’t lived.