Tuesday, July 20, 2010

That Song About the Telephone Number

“What’s that song about about the number on the wall?”

Ask most people and unless they’ve living under a rock (an especially large rock at that) they’ll remember Tommy Tutone’s 1982 hit “867-5309/Jenny,” if not from the days when it was new and exciting then from 80s nights and covers versions and ads for Time Life Music “Awesome 80s” compilations. Even if people didn’t know the exact title, they would at least know the phone number itself, since it’s the catchiest part of the song. But although “867-5309” was Tommy Tutone’s only hit and only real lasting cultural impression, the band didn’t invent the idea to write a song about a phone number.

Two earlier examples from different genres are the Glen Miller Orchestra’s 1940 song “PEnnsylvania 6-5000” — about the phone number for the Hotel Pennsylvania, 736-5000, alleged to be the oldest working number in New York City — and Wilson Pickett’s 1966 song “634-5789 (Soulsville, USA).”

But I recently discovered another phone number that’s way closer in genre and theme and time of release to “867-5309.” In fact, it predates it by only three years. It’s The B-52s’ “6060-842,” from their debut album, which also features “Planet Claire” and “Rock Lobster.” (I periodically feel the urge to seek out new B-52s music, and I ended up downloading and about a dozen others it just before a drive. Nothing helps stave off motorist monotony like a good rock block of B-52s. Just try and fall asleep behind the wheel with that playing.) I was surprised at how similar this song was to the Tommy Tutone song. It’s not that they sound all that much alike, but they’re both songs about phone numbers — specifically ones about people seeing a number written on a wall, calling it, and not connecting with the Mr. or Mrs. Sexy Goodtimes they think should be picking up. Check out the opening lyrics to “6060-842”:
Tina went to the ladies’ room
Saw it written on the wall
“If you’d like a very nice time
Just give this number a call”

It was 6060-842!
606 — and I’m waitin’ for you
606 — and I’m waitin’ for you

Tina reached in her pocketbook
Pulled out a thin dime
Dropped it in the phone slot
Prayin’ she'd get the line
Sound familiar? I think it should, aside from the switch from first-person narration about a dude in “867-5309” to third-person narration about some chick named Tina in “6060-842.” (And while we’re at it, what’s with stating the number in the B-52s song with four digits before the hyphen? Does anyone in the U.S. ever give their number that way?) I’m not saying that Tommy Tutone’s song was a rip of the B-52 song, but these are pretty similar and specific events that the songs are narrating. And though the bands offer very different takes on 80s pop music, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that whoever wrote “867-5309” would have known about The B-52s and that they’d already done a song about a phone number. So yeah, to me it diminishes the importance of Tommy Tutone, which already must struggle with the shame of being remembered as a one-hit wonder.

Personally, I prefer the B-52s’ take on calling bathroom graffiti phone numbers and then not getting laid. But then again I’m partial to The B-52s. There is a video of The B-5s performing “6060-842” — and back in 1979, no less:

The audio is less than great, but the song can be purchased or otherwise obtained online for those that would like to hear it in all its glory.

May The B-52s one day be remembered for something more than just “Love Shack,” and may all your docks have lobsters beneath them.

Music, previously:

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