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Funkytown

Funkytown todd in shadows

Date Aired
March 2, 2020
Running Time
17:14
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Todd plays "Funkytown" on the piano.

LIPPS, INC. - FUNKYTOWN
A one-hit retrospective

Todd: Welcome to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at bands and artists known for only one song. Folks, decades are arbitrary spans of history. [images of logos from the 50s to 00s...] They don't actually mark the start or end of anything and [...and fashion trends from 1950s to 2100s] almost nothing in reality fits neatly within the lines like that. However, the '70s...

Clip of Earth, Wind & Fire performance
Todd (VO): ...are definitely and unequivocally the disco decade. Not only because disco was the '70s' biggest cultural trend, but also because the [clip of Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve] second the ball dropped on January 1st, 1980, disco was...

Todd: ...deeeead.

Clip of The Village People performing "Y.M.C.A."
Todd (VO): And people knew it too. It wasn't a slow fade-out. Disco was so over, that it was instantly reduced to a [clip from The Simpsons] punchline for years and years. [clips of Kenny Rogers - "Lady"...] The '80s would take a little while to figure out what it was going to be, but [...and REO Speedwagon - "Keep On Loving You"] one thing was for sure: It wasn't gonna be disco.

Todd: Except.

Video for Lipps, Inc. - "Funkytown" starts
Todd (VO): In the summer of 1980, one last straggler managed to creep over the line and hit it big. The final, thumping dance-floor anthem before MTV took over.

Todd: Disco had one last breath of life in it after all. A breath of life called, "Funkytown".

Cynthia Johnson: A-won't you take me to Funkytown?
Todd (VO): Yes, "Funkytown" by the band Lipps, Inc, which managed to outlast its own genre and become [image of 1980 Billboard Hot 100 chart with "Funkytown" at...] the final disco #1. And it did it through one really basic trick.

Todd: By being one of the most maddeningly catchy songs ever written.

Snippet of "Funkytown" beat
Todd: [imitating hook] Doot-doot-doot-doot-doot, doot-doot-doot-doot-doot!
Cynthia: Gotta make a move to a town that's right for me
Todd (VO): I think this would've been a hit at pretty much any time in the past forty years. It's unstoppable. You only have to hear it...

Todd: ...once, and you have every note immediately memorized.

Todd (VO): That's why it's had such a longevity. No one's ever forgotten it.

Todd: It wouldn't surprise me if in fact, it never gets forgotten.

Clip from The Road
Todd (VO): The last man on Earth, long after the fall of civilization, and the entire concept of funk or towns has lost all meaning...

Todd: ...that last guy will still be there humming that synth line to himself.

Todd (VO): [singing in a depressed tone] "Doot-doot-doot-doot-doot, I wish that food still existed."

Todd: But one hit was obviously all it was gonna be for Lipps, Inc.

Video for "Funkytown"
Todd (VO): The fact that they had a hit at all was nothing short of a miracle. Like, an '80s disco hit, the idea.

Todd: The mind rebels at it.

Todd (VO): And yet, at the same time, the song was so unforgettable. Surely, the band that created one of the all-time ear worms had more tricks up their sleeve. What was their deal? And how did they try to keep the party going long after the last dance?

Todd: Well, let's talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. [exhales sharply] Let's talk about it.

Cynthia: Well, I talk about it, talk about it
Talk about it, talk about it
Before the hit

Todd: So, here is the story of "Funkytown" as told by the man who wrote it...

Clip of interview with Steve Greenberg on Twin Cities Today
Todd (VO): ...band leader, composer-producer, Steven Greenberg. Take it away.
Male Host: First of all, tell me how you did "Funkytown", and, you know, how come it became so acceptable all over the world?
Steven Greenberg: Well, uh...I was a songwriter-producer, and, uh...wrote the song.
Todd: [beat] Great story, bro. Tell it again.

Todd (VO): Okay, it looks like I'll have to tell the story. Okay, this guy is Steven Greenberg. He comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and, uh...I'm guessing he looks more comfortable in a recording studio than in front of a TV camera. [image of Greenberg and Cynthia Johnson together in the studio] But he's a pretty talented guy. He plays a ton of instruments, and he started a project in the late '70s he called, [album cover for Designer Music by...] Lipps, Inc. [images of...] Get it, lip sync? [...and Greenberg with the original Lipps, Inc. lineup] He did eventually put a real band together, but mostly it was just him playing almost every instrument.

Todd: And in 1979, he wrote the song that made him big.

Clip of Twin Cities Today interview
Steven: ...and, uh, I wrote a song before that called, "Rock It". And...
Todd (VO): Hmm.

Todd: Okay, well that seems important. Let's check that out first.

Audio for "Rock It" plays over live performance
Lipps, Inc: Rock, rock, rock, rock it
Todd (VO): It's alright. I do like that "dun-dun".

Todd: It's got like this-this weird sound to it. Like a video game sound effect. I like it.

Clip of Twin Cities Today interview
Steven: I took it to New York, got turned down by every major record company in New York City. Took it to Los Angeles, got turned down by every major record company in Los Angeles.
Todd (VO): Well, that's a shame. I can only speculate why.

Todd: Might be 'cause...[shrugs] you know, it's not the greatest song ever written. But it's more likely because by mid-1979, disco was cratering.

Footage of...
Todd (VO): Like people talk about Disco Demolition Night, but a bunch of drunk idiots setting a ballpark on fire was not what killed disco. The disco backlash was a lot more widespread than that, and...

Todd: ...while it was all extremely ugly, the record industry deserves some blame for it, too.

Video for The Bee Gees - "Stayin' Alive"
Todd (VO): See, after Saturday Night Fever, the record industry went all in on disco. Every artist on Earth was cutting dance tracks, and the market got over-saturated real quick. [shot of Skylight Studio article: "Discophobia"] The sales started tanking, and the record industry panicked and pulled out.

Todd: But Greenberg found his way to what was basically the last disco label on Earth, [still shot of logo for...] Casablanca Records, and they gave him a shot. [single cover for...] He got signed, they released "Rock It", it did nothing.

Clip of Twin Cities Today interview
Steven: He said, "Steven, do you have more songs?" And I said, "Plenty! Don't worry about it." I didn't have one.
Todd (VO): Okay, well he did write one eventually. He recruited a secretary and part-time singer, Cynthia Johnson, who also [image of Cynthia with...] played a little saxophone for a band called Flyte Tyme.

Todd: Later to be known as...

Brief clip of "Jungle Love" by...
Todd (VO): ...Morris Day and the Time. [sarcastically] Get away from those losers.

Todd: And Greenberg wrote a second song...

Clip of Cynthia Johnson interview on Boyd Huppert's Land of 10,000 Stories
Cynthia: And I thought, "No way. No way!" And Steven said, "This is a hit," and I thought, "He's out of his mind."
Todd: Well, shows what you know, lady!

The big hit

Todd: 1980 is an absolutely bizarre year for the pop charts. [shot of New York Magazine article: "Studio 54: The Party's Over"] Disco collapsed really suddenly. [images of late '70s Hot 100 charts with accompanying audio for The Bee Gees - "Tragedy"...] Like, it was still all over the charts in June 1979, [...Styx - "Babe"...] and then completely gone by December.

Shot of article: "Record Industry's Sales Slowing After 25 Years of Steady Growth"
Todd (VO): And no one had really figured out what to replace it with, so the entire industry took a massive slump. [image of August 1980 Hot 100 chart with Olivia Newton-John - "Magic" playing the background] If you look at the charts of 1980, there's no obvious trends and almost none of the songs have stood the test of time. Probably because they weren't that popular to begin with.

Todd: So even after everyone everywhere proclaiming that "Disco was over," and, you know, "We'll kick your ass if you play it"... Yeah, there was definitely still an opening.

Video for "Funkytown" starts again
Todd (VO): "Funkytown" is...in its own way, a perfect song.

Todd: It could not be a better version of itself. It has reached its final form.

Todd (VO): Whether disco was dead or not, this was a surefire hit.

Todd: Name a song that crams this many hooks into three minutes.

Clip of...
Todd (VO): The most important hook of course is that synth line. Maybe the most instantly memorable musical phrase ever written.

Todd: Name me a more immediately recognizable series of notes in history. [brief clips of...] "Smoke on the Water," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "Beethoven's Fifth"? No, it's... [clip of person dialing phone number to the beat of "Funkytown"]

Clip from South Park
Towelie: Won't you take me down to Funkytown.
Todd: But I also just really love how...tight and simple it is.
Clip of Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps - "Baby Face"
Todd (VO): Most of the really shitty disco was slathered with strings, and just...really over-produced. [clip of...] "Funkytown" keeps things tight. It is very spare, electronic. And Greenberg says he was originally inspired by [promotional image of...] Kraftwerk of all things.

Todd: It just brings a very..."economy of sound" vibe to it. There is not a wasted note.

Todd (VO): Every instrument gets one perfect riff.

Snippet of strings and saxophone riffs during break
One stab of strings, one brief sax solo. When the chorus finally kicks in with that sharp funk riff out of nowhere...
Cynthia Johnson: A-won't you take me to...
Todd: Dun, dun-dun!

Todd (VO): It all works.

Todd: This is the song that put Minneapolis on the map.

Another clip of Twin Cities Today
Todd (VO): In fact, some people will try to tell you that the song is a tribute to Minneapolis. It is not.

Todd: It's one of the greatest songs in Minnesota history, [image of...] it's in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, but it's a song about how Minnesota sucks.

Clip of VH1: Behind the Music interview with Steven Greenberg
Steven: This town was completely...vanilla.
Todd (VO): Minneapolis was not a funky town. It was overwhelmingly white, and in fact, it was one of the last places where the song caught on.
Clip of Twin Cities Today interview
Male Host: There's only one major radio station in the Twin Cities that plays it, and that's KSTP FM.
Clip of "Funkytown"
Cynthia: Gotta move on
Clip of VH1: Behind the Music
Steven: "Funkytown" basically means, "I wanna to get out of here and go to New York."
New York, of course, was the epicenter of disco, and Saturday Night Fever, Studio 54. So I imagine if you're a kid from nowhere, NYC looks amazing.

Todd: But I've lived in New York a while now, and, uh... [image of busy subway station with caption: "MTA WTF: A visual timeline of the subway's epic 2017 meltdown"] don't really recommend it.

Clip of New York City documentary on Discovery
Todd (VO): Can't really imagine it was any more attractive in 1980. Smelled funky I'm sure, but...ehhh.

Todd: More than that, it just...it just makes me laugh to think about it.

Clip of "Funkytown"
Cynthia: Town to keep me movin'...
Todd (VO): You know, "I'm dreaming of going to New York to pursue a career in disco..."

Todd: ...which was completely gone by that point, [image of "Greetings from Minneapolis" graffiti] so you can escape Minneapolis, which was about to...

Video for Prince - "1999"
Todd (VO): ...blow the fuck up as the center of R&B in the '80s!
News Anchor: The Twin Cities are without a doubt, the big new fertile music center of America...
By the way, [montage clips of concert footage of...] Prince was just starting out at that time, and according to people who knew him, it really chapped his ass that the biggest name in Minneapolis funk was some [clip of early Steven Greenberg interview] balding white guy.
Clip of Owen Hudney interview with caption: "Manager for Prince (1977-1980)"
Owen Hudney: This other record from this young white kid just went #1 on the black charts and the urban charts? I don't know if Prince will ever cop to this, but I think that that served to propel him on...to really do what he had to do.
Video for Prince and the Revolution - "Let's Go Crazy"
Todd (VO): So there you have it. Prince became the biggest pop star in the world...

Todd: ...entirely to outdo...

Intercut clips of "Funkytown" and "Let's Go Crazy"
Todd (VO): ..."Funkytown." Without "Funkytown", maybe we don't have Purple Rain.

Todd: Think about that.

Video for "Funkytown"
Todd (VO): Of course, the other great hook of this song is Cynthia Johnson's vocals, who absolutely wails on this track.
Lipps, Inc: Won't you take me to...
Cynthia: ...Funkytown?
Speaking of lip sync, none of these people are Cynthia Johnson.

Todd: And there was actually a second video for this.

Clip of second video for "Funkytown"
Cynthia: Won't you take me to Funkytown?
Todd (VO): And that woman is definitely not Cynthia Johnson. I found a short promo clip that was clearly shot years later...
Promo clip of "Funkytown" performance
Cynthia: Won't you take me to Funkytown?
Ah, there. That actually is her. Even though according to her website, this was meant to be a video for a completely different song.
Video for "Funkytown"
Todd (VO): So, for as well known, and well remembered, and continuously played as this song has been for forty years...

Todd: ...[pause] does it seem like not very many people actually like it?

Todd (VO): Okay, I think most people have some level of affection for it, but no one ever seems to call it a great song. Doesn't show up on any Greatest Hits of the '80s lists, or the disco retrospectives.

Todd: I think the prevailing opinion is that it's catchy in the wrong ways. It's just a mindless, annoying novelty.

Todd (VO): I mean, "Take me to Funkytown," that's a ridiculous lyric. It's no wonder that this song going to #1 did not revive disco.

Todd: If anything, it probably cemented disco's reputation as stupid music for stupid people.

Todd (VO): And even after disco became cool again in the '90s, I think critics and historians feel like it showed up too late in the game to have any particular meaning attached to it. As much as I am in awe over this song, I don't think I'd call it one of my favorites either.

Todd: But you know what? Screw it! I will make the case for "Funkytown" as a meaningful track.

Clip of The Village People - "Y.M.C.A."
Todd (VO): Most of disco's reevaluation came from its importance in the black and gay communities, right? [clip of "Funkytown"] Well, you know...maybe this isn't James Brown, but it's about the greatness of funk, about wanting to be around a crowd that listens to something other than [image of...] Barry Manilow.

Todd: And what's more vocative to the gay experience than wanting to...

Todd (VO): ...get the fuck out of a nowhere town, and go somewhere where there's an actual scene?!

Lipps, Inc: Won't you take me to...
Cynthia: ...Funkytown
And most important, have you checked out what other pop hits it was up against?

Todd: Without "Funkytown", all that would have been on the Top 40 was...

Montage clips of Ambrosia - "You're the Only Woman (You & I)"; Robbie Dupree - "Steal Away"; Jermaine Jackson - "Let's Get Serious"
Todd (VO): ...shit like Ambrosia, Robbie Dupree, Jermaine Jackson. A billion other songs no one remembers. [clip of "Funkytown"] Thank God for Lipps, Inc for making something that people would actually remember in that godforsaken year!
Lipps, Inc: Won't you take me to...
Todd: Too bad they never had a chance of scoring a second hit.

The failed follow-up

Todd: Lipps, Inc. only had that first hit because that song was unstoppable. Disco was still dead.

Footage of early Lipps, Inc performance
Todd (VO): Hitting #1 was not enough to keep their own record label from shutting down all their east coast offices. A second disco song on the charts in 1980? That was, uh...That was not gonna happen.

Todd: Or was it?

Video for "Funkytown"
Todd (VO): You know, I've been calling "Funkytown" the last disco hit 'cause that's what I've always heard it called. It's just music nerd lore I've picked up.

Todd: But, I'm not sure it's actually true.

Clip of Diana Ross - "I'm Coming Out"
Diana Ross: I'm coming out
Todd (VO): The lines between disco and post-disco are blurry. [clips of Indeep - "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life"...] A number of songs that came after were called disco. Or would have been if disco hadn't [...and The Weather Girls - "It's Raining Men"] become a dirty word. So the depth of their genre is not entirely an excuse.

Todd: Honestly, even if disco had been thriving, they'd probably still be one-hit wonders.

Video for Lipps, Inc - "Designer Music" starts
Todd (VO): Technically, their follow-up was releasing "Rock It" again, but that didn't really go anywhere for the second time. [single cover for...] So you can consider their true follow-up this song. It's called "Designer Music".
Clip of Desiigner - "Panda"
Desiigner: I got broads in Atlanta
Twistin' dope, lean, and the Fanta
No, not that Designer.

Todd: "Designer Music" by Lipps, Inc.

Clip of "Designer Music"
Cynthia: Everywhere you go, lights flash
Todd (VO): Okay, so this song is, um...

Todd: ...[pause] bad.

Cynthia: Designer music
Designer musiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiic
Todd (VO): Whatever magic happened with "Funkytown" is not present. Every musical decision is wrong in the way that "Funkytown" is right. It's all herky-jerky, you can't dance to it. Musically, I have no idea what's going on. It certainly doesn't sound like a dance song.

Todd: If you wanna be charitable, it sounds like one of the more...

Video for Devo - "Uncontrollable Urge"
Todd (VO): ...avant-garde new wave acts, but honestly it's not even that. Whenever I check out flop singles for '80s artists that have topped out at, like, #40, this is always [clip of "Designer Music"] what it sounds like. A whole bunch of annoying ideas that don't click and don't come together jammed into a giant mess. If this is "designer music", I'd hate to find out what kind of mutant alien it was designed for.

Todd: Actually though, I probably shouldn't say that, 'cause...the song did find an audience. [shot of Platinum Design article] "Designer Music" became a giant hit...in Mexico...and the Philippines. [shrugs]

Video for "Funkytown" plays
Todd (VO): Greenberg kept going for a few years, but they never really sniffed the Hot 100 again. One of the many things that brought down disco was that it didn't really have a lot of real superstars. I mean, they had their Bee Gees and their Donna Summer, but for the most part, disco was dominated by flash-in-the-pan singers and faceless producers like Greenberg.

Todd: That was already a problem in 1980, but it was...

Clip of opening for...
Todd (VO): ...devastating when MTV hit. You know, the era of [images of...] Duran Duran, Wham!, Prince...and [clip of earlier interview with Greenberg] this guy?

Todd: No. He was not made for the '80s.

Did they ever do anything else?

Todd: Not really.

Clip of live performance
Todd (VO): Cynthia Johnson left the band after a couple albums. Lipps, Inc kept going for a little bit more. I wish I could tell you there are more gems in their discography, but...I listened, and I didn't find a lot.

Todd: Can't say I was surprised they did not have a hit with "Tight Pair".

Audio for "Tight Pair" plays over album cover for Pucker Up
Cynthia: You got a tight pair, loosen 'em up
Todd: Oh, or here's a surefire hit. "Choir Practice".
Audio for "Choir Practice" plays over album cover for 4
Todd (VO): It's literally just...a bunch of vocal exercises set to a dance beat.

Todd: It's barely a song!

Clip of live performance of Ace - "How Long"
Todd (VO): Although they did have a minor dance-floor hit with a cover of Ace's "How Long".
Paul Carrack: How long has this been going on?
Yeah, you know that one. Well, here's their version.
Audio for Lipps, Inc's "How Long" plays over album cover for Pucker Up
Lipps, Inc: How long has this been going on?
Todd (VO): This is actually pretty interesting. It's an extremely Kraftwerk-sounding cover.

Todd: Also, I like that they covered a one-hit wonder.

Video for Pseudo Echo - "Funkytown"
Todd (VO): Just like fellow one-hit wonder Pseudo Echo wound up covering them. One-hit wonders supporting one-hit wonders, you love to see it.
Clip of Cynthia Johnson performance
Cynthia Johnson did stay in music. She performs with the Grammy-winning gospel group, Sounds of Blackness. [clip of VH1: Behind the Music interview with Greenberg] And I would've sworn that Greenberg would turn out to be some kind of music lifer who stuck around behind the scenes producing other great songs, but...uh, it didn't happen for him. He stopped recording after 1985, and in fact, he never left Minneapolis, and, uh, he went into web design. Which...

Todd: ...I mean, look at him. Yeah.

Did they deserve better?

Todd: Ehh...no.

Clip of "Funkytown"
Lipps, Inc: Won't you take me to...
Cynthia: ...Funkytown?
Todd (VO): I think this guy used all his really good ideas on "Funkytown". Like, even at disco's height, "Funkytown" would have been a one-off. But really, "Funkytown" is the only hit you really need to make. That song is eternal. [brief clip of VH1: Behind the Music] Greenberg has said it will outlive all his descendants, and he is correct. "Funkytown" will live forever. Maybe it's not a song you love, but it's one you have to respect.

Todd: And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm about to go beat my skull with a hammer to try and remove this song from my brain.

Gets up and leaves

Clip of "Funkytown"
Cynthia: Won't you take me down to Funkytown?
Won't you take me down to Funkytown?
Closing Tag Song: Missing Persons - "Funkytown"

THE END

"Funkytown" is owned by Rebound Records.

This video is owned by me.

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