October 30, 2014
Todd plays "Maniac" on the piano.
MICHAEL SEMBELLO - MANIAC
A pop song review (instead of "A one-hit wonder retrospective")
Todd: Mwah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Yes, it's time once again for the 3rd annual One Hit Wonderland Spooktacular Edition. Oooooooohh! This year, I have my scariest costume yet: [picture of Todd] a loser with nothing better to do than talk shit on the Internet. Mwah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! And this year, we're going to listen to a dark, haunting tune about the most frightening thing of all: dancing!
- Office video for "Maniac"
Todd (VO): Okay, I'm scared of dancing. What if everyone laughs at me?
Todd: Okay, yeah, I'm stretching here. It turns out there aren't many spooky one-hit wonders out there; I didn't think I'd make it to three.
Todd (VO): But even though "Maniac" is from the soundtrack of a cheesy dance movie, it seems like it should be on the soundtrack of a Jason movie, right? I mean, listen to it.
- Michael Sembello: She's a maniac, maniac, I sure know
Todd (VO): For one thing, it's called "Maniac". But even when you know it's a dance song, it doesn't feel like a dance song. I say it's about a murderous psychopath who just happens to be dancing.
- Michael: It can cut you like a knife
Todd: Like a knife, [picture of Anthony Perkins holding...] with a knife, same difference.
Todd (VO): Yeah, this is the kind of bizarro, dark pop that made the early '80s so amazing. But what about the man behind it? Who is the man behind it? Where is the man behind it? All I see is a hot chick in a leotard. [Switches to performance on American Bandstand] There he is. Hi, buddy. I can see why the camera decided to focus on Jennifer Beals instead. Now, this burly beardo is Michael Sembello, seen here playing synthesizer while accompanied by another synth player, a third synth player, and a keytar player. And despite the sublime '80s-ness of that fact, Sembello may be one of the more anonymous one-hit wonders I cover here. He's not in the official video, the song came from a soundtrack and not one of his albums, you could've heard this song every day in 1983 and not know who sang it.
Todd: But I am curious about this one.
Todd (VO): The man was told to write a song for a dance movie, and instead of "Footloose" or "(I've Had) The Time of My Life", he somehow turned in this.
- Synth: La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la...
Todd (VO): And the producers somehow took a look at it and said, "Perfect. Build the entire marketing campaign around this song." What the hell was wrong with him? Did the guy just have axe murderer on the brain?
Todd: Now let's find out. Let's find out if he snapped and killed anyone after. I hear if you say Michael Sembello's name three times in the mirror, he shows up to play keytar solos at you! [Flashes of lightning] Ooooooohhh!
- Michael: On a wire between will and what will be
Before the hit
Todd: I had many adjectives I'd planned to use for the work of Michael Sembello; "funky" was not one of them.
- Performance on Der Musikladen of "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder, including a shot of Todd playing like Stevie
- Stevie Very superstitious...
Todd (VO): You may be wondering why, instead of dated '80s soundtrack pop, we're listening to Stevie Wonder bang out "Superstition". Well, the answer is...
Todd: ...it makes me happy. But also...
Todd (VO): ...Michael Sembello is playing on it. There, you see that shaggy, Doobie Brother-lookin' dude there? Yeah, that's Sembello. Apparently, he was sideman for Stevie many years, including for a couple of, like, the really good albums: [album covers of...] Fulfullingness' First Finale, Songs in the Key of Life. Yeah, that's a big deal. [Brief clip of Stevie performing "As" in studio] And you can find old videos of him performing with Stevie. Not a lot of them though, because the camera just [arrow points to Michael's back] kind of seems to turn away from him. Is he the only person not jamming to this? I don't know if I could even listen to "Superstition" without getting down, let alone playing on it, and the rest of the band sure seems to be getting into it. Stevie must've hired this guy for some supreme guitar skills because he sure wasn't hired for his looks.
- Picture of Michael playing behind Stevie
But yeah, apparently, the dude was, like, the hottest session player around for the entire '70s, before and after he worked for Stevie. [Clip of "I Just Called to Say I Love You"] Now, Sembello left Wonder's employment in 1979, and Stevie suddenly stopped making good albums.
Todd: Coincidence? I think not!
- Album cover of Without Walls
Todd (VO): And Sembello kept doing session work for a lot of other R&B singers like, you know, Chaka Khan, New Edition. [Clip of Irene Cara - "Flashdance... What a Feeling"] But he also decided to try and make his own name as a singer. And his break came when the producers of a lame '80s movie needed a theme.
- Irene: What a fee...
Todd: No, no, not yet. No, the song I'm talking about is called "Summer Lovers".
- Clip from Grease
- Danny (John Travolta): Summer lovin'
Todd (VO): No, not that movie either. Directed by the same guy, though. [Clips of Summer Lovers] There we are.
- Michael: Summer lovers
Todd (VO): Yeah, I try to watch all the movies I ever have to bring up, but forgive me, I skipped this one. I'm not gonna spend the week before Halloween watching a love-triangle beach movie, sorry. The song he wrote isn't particularly promising either, but he got another request to write a movie theme; this one for a cheesy dance movie. [Clip from Flashdance] He recorded a couple of demos, all of which got rejected, but the producers were very interested in the song he accidentally included on the demo tape he sent: some tune he wrote about [picture of a crazy guy holding a bloody axe] a serial killer.
Todd: I knew it! I knew it!
The big hit
- Intercut clips of the official video and Michael on American Bandstand
Todd does the drum riffs
Todd (VO): Okay, so yeah, there was, in fact, a reason why "Maniac" sounds like it does—it wasn't written for Flashdance. Sembello wrote it after watching a horror movie; some reports say it was [posters of...] Texas Chainsaw Massacre, others say it was, of course, Maniac, which would certainly make sense. And apparently, the original lyrics went, "he's a maniac, maniac, that's for sure. He will kill your cat and nail it to the door."
Todd: I love this fact so goddamn much.
Todd (VO): Oh, man, I want to hear the original song. God, I would kill to hear it. I would kill...
Todd: ...your cat and nail it to the... Excuse me.
Todd (VO): But though that version sounds great, as a horror movie song, it'd be a little obvious. But rewritten as a dance song, now that's something completely new and different. Dance songs have been around as long as songs have been around, but just by sheer happenstance, "Maniac" gives us a new twist by just sounding utterly deranged.
- Michael: On the ice-blue line of insanity
- Is a place most never see
Todd: I've said before that I like dance songs that are desperate, but this goes beyond desperate. It's violent and disturbed.
- Michael: Just a steel-town girl on a Saturday night
- Lookin' for the fight of her life
Todd (VO): Very little of the imagery in "Maniac" has to do with dancing. She's more like a haunted spirit, or maybe like this raving homeless person on the street.
- Michael: In the real time world, no one sees her at all
- They all say she's crazy
Todd (VO): Dancing doesn't satisfy a want or even a need, she just doesn't have a choice. It's this cruel, uncontrollable compulsion.
Todd: It's like she's been cursed...to dance.
Todd (VO): And it's a perfect fit for Flashdance. Not that Jennifer Beals' character is insane or anything, it's just a normal dance movie. And honestly, even for a dance movie, Flashdance is pretty damn bad. Yeah, it has scenes people remember, but here's what actually watching it is like: [famous clips of...] water, then "Maniac", like, right afterward, and then about six hours of boring, and then finally at the end, "What a Feeling". If you've seen the music videos, you've seen all the good parts. In fact, a movie being compared to a music video used to be a compliment before Flashdance happened.
But it does have some pretty striking images, and "Maniac" fits it perfectly. It wouldn't have worked at all in [brief clip of...] Footloose or any other typically dumb, cheesy '80s movie. But Flashdance, well, you know, it's a movie that's kinda dark and jagged and harsh. You watch her, she doesn't look like she's doing this for fun. Demonic possession seems like as good an explanation as any. It's also a good explanation for that weird part towards the end where a synth choir starts singing what I can only call...
Todd: ..."Evil 'Chopsticks.'"
- Synth: La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la...
Todd (VO): And then Sembello picks up his guitar and just shreds.
- Michael masterfully shreds on the guitar
Todd (VO): With the beard and all the soundtrack songs, I kinda wanna call [brief clip of "Playing with the Boys" by...] Sembello a wannabe Kenny Loggins, but Loggins never wrote anything as good as this. Matter of fact, are we sure...
Todd: ...Loggins wasn't ripping him off?
- Michael: She just danced into the danger zone
Todd: You're in the danger zone
Todd (VO): And Jennifer Beals doesn't even dance to "Maniac" in the movie, she's working out. There's no choreography, it's just a woman torturing herself. And yes, exercise is torture, I don't see how it isn't. [Picture of Jigsaw] Forget the Saw movies. This is the real torture porn, emphasis on porn. "My anaconda don't". I don't even know how you would dance to "Maniac", it goes too fast. And what you see in the video is the closest dance I can imagine.
Todd: [jogging in place] Oh God! Can't stop! Can't stop!
The failed follow-up
Todd: Michael Sembello's failed follow-up made it into the Top 40 briefly. Unfortunately, it is not horror-themed, but [single cover of "Automatic Man"] it is sci-fi-themed. It's called "Automatic Man". Let's take a look.
- Video for "Automatic Man". Todd is in shock.
Todd (VO): What is that sound, robot cavemen? "Ooga-chaka, ooga-chaka."
- Michael: He's the Automatic Man
- Two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
- He's the Automatic Man
Todd: [completely surprised] I was worried the rest of the episode was going to be boring.
- Michael: Cybernetic dream
Todd (VO): Uh, if you ever wanted to see what it would look like if Hall & Oates tried to write "Mr. Roboto," here's your answer. Is that Krankor from Prince of Space?
Todd: I...I really don't think my commentary could improve this in any way. I'm just gonna let this play.
- Michael: When he looks at you,
- I´m watching, too
- Automatic was my toy.
- Never dreamed he would steal her away.
- One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
Todd: I believe in God now.
- Michael: He's the Automatic Man
Did he ever do anything else?
Todd: You know, we gave him a chance to write a dance song, he gave us a horror movie theme instead. Why don't we just add him to the soundtrack of a horror movie.
- Clip of Gremlins
Todd (VO): Hell yeah. You don't like Gremlins, go get nuked. Well, anyway, Sembello had a song for this too.
- Bar scene from the film as "Mega Madness" plays
- Michael: Mega madness
- Super madness
- Mega madness
Todd (VO): Hmm. Okay, this isn't a horror song, it's a party song. If there was any horror monster that deserves a cheesy '80s party song, it's the mogwai, but...yeah, this isn't doin' it for me. The out-of-nowhere Flashdance reference makes more sense now, though. You know what, let's go back to sci-fi. [Clip from...] What have we got here? A song from Cocoon. Okay, that's, like, the movie where aliens make old people horny. Yeah, I don't really recommend it.
- Video for "Gravity"
Well, anyway, let's take a look at...AAHHH! AAHH!
Todd: Ron Howard!
- Ron: Michael was working on a song for a movie I directed, Cocoon, when something just went wrong.
Todd (VO): What went wrong is that mustache.
Todd: We have found the scariest thing we're gonna see in this episode:...
Todd (VO): ...1985 Ron Howard's mustache.
- Ron: Michael loved Cocoon.
Todd (VO): "He had shitty taste." Also, I see Sembello has turned into post-apocalypse Khal Drogo. And here's the song:
- Michael: You're like gravity pulling me, gravity pulling me
Todd (VO): Wow, we need some Ron Howard commentary on this.
- Michael: Gravity pulling me
- Ron: It was weird
Todd (VO): Okay, the song's super-dated '80s garbage, but I'm still enjoying this. It's no "Automatic Man," my new favorite thing in the world, but it's fun in its own way.
- Video for "Heavy Weather"
- Michael: In the news today, heavy weather
Todd (VO): Unfortunately, it does not look like Sembello pursued this career path any further, instead turning into the poor man's Michael McDonald. He had the beard, he had the voice, probably a better career move than making silly robot songs, but unfortunately, it didn't really pan out.
- Performance of "Maniac" with Stevie Wonder
After 1992, he seems to have largely busied himself with playing jazz, and [brief clip of Michael and Stevie at the piano] occasionally performing with Stevie again. I can't imagine he has many regrets.
- Michael: She's a maniac, maniac on the floor
Todd: Although no, dude, we did not need a smooth jazz version of "Maniac", stop that.
Did he deserve better?
Todd: I think I have been enjoying the work of Michael Sembello in exactly the way it should be enjoyed.
Todd (VO): Thirty years in hindsight, these videos are pure gold. This would not have been as much fun if I had known these songs to begin with. Unfortunately, it looks like he kept trying to ride trends, and most of it is, like, really bad soundtrack filler and soft rock. But in that magical year of 1983, those trends brought us "Maniac" and "Automatic Man"—two songs that will earn him my only semi-ironic respect for the rest of his life.
Todd: God, this is one of the most glorious happy accidents in pop history. The man missed his calling writing about robots and chainsaw-wielding psychos, I swear to God.
- Michael: And she's dancing like she's never danced before
Closing tag song: Firewind - "Maniac"
"Maniac" is owned by Casablanca Records
This video is owned by me