16th April, 1988
There are three reasons this installment of our journey is running a bit late. First, I'm having a hard time concentrating enough to write anything at all, as readers of my other blogs might have noticed. Second, I recently went through the spreadsheet I've compiled of all the Hot Latin #1s to date and I think got a little intimidated at just how many there are left to cover. I should catch up to the present in a couple of years, but damn. A couple of years. I never make plans more than two weeks in advance. And third, tackling this song in particular has seemed more and more foolhardy the more I've listened to it.
Let's begin with the dry, three-minutes-on-Wikipedia basics: recorded two years earlier, this was Juan Gabriel's last original song for six years thanks to a dispute with his label and publishers. (Shades of another major pop star of the 1980s going into the 1990s.) It is an uptempo dance song with elements of freestyle, mariachi, merengue, and house. And it is nearly ten minutes long.
We've had uptempo songs before: the Franco/Emmanuel double-header, Luis Miguel's Dusty Springfield cover, and of course Los Lobos. But this is the first Dance Song in the modern meaning of the phrase, with electronic rhythms and the sort of bloated running time that would raise suspicions of this being the twelve-inch version if there had ever been a seven-inch. But no; this is it, the song as it appeared on Gabriel's "farewell" compilation of the same name, and as far as I can tell the song as it was played on the radio in late 1987 and early 1988.
And it's the kind of song worthy of that running time. Not only does it have a hot beat that practically demands dancing (I broke into a white-boy boogie almost reflexively the first time I heard it), but Gabriel's performance, pushing himself to the very edge of his range, almost in tears, is a hell of a swan song. He pitches the opening just an emotional notch below opera, with as many dramatic flourishes as he can muster, and when the beat drops he simply rides it. It's a tropical beat, equal parts Havana and Miami (which for thirty years have practically been the same thing) the punchy horn charts which accompany it practically the only concession to the Mexican mariachi on which he made his name in the 70s and early 80s. Aside, that is, from his own near-frenzied performance.
(Mariachi, of course, practically requires being sung with a sob in one's voice. Or more strictly speaking, norteño does. This isn't the moment to get into the distinction, but there is one.)
Structurally, this song is a complete mess, following Gabriel's own circuitous route through whatever sections he apparently felt like singing at the time. There's no particular chorus, although everything gets repeated more than once; there are about five different main hooks, and though it's compulsively danceable throughout it changes tempo so many times and so abruptly that I'd imagine it would be a DJ's nightmare. (If you're feeling brave, though, I dare you to throw it on at a busy club night and see what happens.)
But ultimately, I don't have a whole lot of reference points for this kind of thing. The best I can do is gesture vaguely in the direction of Miami Sound Machine, the only outfit I know of that was making anything like this in the 1980s (we'll be meeting their most famous alumnus before long), and not even they were as garish and cheap-sounding as this can be.
Because while I don't have a lot of reference points in professionally recorded music, I'm intimately familiar with some of the sounds in this song: they were produced by the same cheap not-even-Casio keyboards that I fooled around with as a kid in the 80s: those telltale tinny "bass" notes and the upward flourishes on some "harpsichord" setting or other irresistibly recall the embarrassment I felt when I tried to show off to a more worldly-wise friend and he mocked those sounds. I rarely played with the keyboard again. (Come to think of it, that was probably the first instance of snob-oriented criticism making my revise my musical opinions. It would not be the last.) So I have instant and deeply-set aversions to some of these sounds; but the propulsiveness , rhythmic density, and luxuriant emotionalism of this song overwhelms everything else.
Even the lyric is something of a mess; he needs a love, he's tired of being alone, but he's also rejecting a lover — and finding one, all to the same thumping beat and righteous salsa horn charts. If nothing else, it's a tremendously camp performance (though by Anglo standards what piece of Latin culture isn't?), the kind of florid, flamboyant spectacle that not only invites but practically compels comparisons with Prince or Michael Jackson. The electro-soul, the rhythmic chokes and sighs . . . I can't help wondering what kind of collaborations might have taken place had Gabriel not chosen to walk away at just this moment.
It was only at the top of the chart for a week. You could hardly expect more from a nine-and-a-half-minute camp techno-tropical suite.