The best songs sometimes start simply–a drum beat, a guitar riff, a hand clap, a guitar riff, or a keyboard followed by an opening lyric that every listener will remember and hopefully associate with said intro every time it’s played: “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah”; “I love the beautiful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair”; “You know I told you once tonight that you could always speak your mind …”
For years, I’ve been trying to figure out why “What od All The People Know?” by The Monroes isn’t in the 1980s pop culture stratosphere. It’s not without airplay and definitely not without its admirers, but it never had the honor of showing up on any of VH-1’s 20,000 1980s-related nostalgia shows from the last decade, nor have I ever heard it in a nostalgic movie trailer or seen it on a compilation (that I own or have seen in a record store). If anything, I’d say the song is a “sleeper” of a hit, something that’s just … well, it’s just known.
It certainly seemed that way when I first encountered it, or at least took note of the name and title. I was driving on the Belt Parkway in May of 1997 and listening to WPLJ, which was one of three FM stations my Hyundai Excel’s radio actually received (and there was no Mets game on the FAN). WPLJ, 95.5, was at the time (and I believe still is) a station following what’s called the “Hot Adult Contemporary” format (after being a Top-40 station and then briefly calling itself “Mojo Radio” in the early 1990s … yeah I don’t know what that was all about either), playing “the hits of yesterday and today” and with an audience that is in the soccer mom demographic. It’s the type of radio you’d ignore at the dentist’s office in favor of an excruciating root canal or that parents would put on for their teenagers because they’re trying to be cool or something.
At the same time, 1997 was the era of boy bands and Spice Girls, so to turn on Z-100 would be an exercise in excruciating torture, so I was willing to put up with “Mmmmbop” for a few minutes while on approach to the Verrazano. By the time I reached the Belt, the traffic was moving at a pace typical for that parkway (one mile an hour) and the afternoon drive show, hosted by Rocky Allen, was starting. They continued to play whatever they’d been overplaying for the last six months (probably “Don’t Speak” or “The Impression That I Get”) and then, after a commercial for Modell’s and some inane banter, announced The Monroes.
The chords struck, the opening verse began, and I thought to myself that this was oddly familiar, but not familiar. It was similar to how, for years, I knew all the words and to Modern English’s “I Melt With You” and would readily dance to it at a junior high or high school dance but knew neither the name of the song or the name of the band performing it.
“What Do All The People Know?”, like I said, sounds like it should have been a hit in the 1980s, something that I would have heard my cousin playing from her room while I watched Scooby-Doo at my aunt’s after preschool in 1982. It has catchy lyrics about a guy’s confusion in a relationship and everyone more or less telling him that yeah, she’s the one … but what do all the people know, right:
Could you be the one I’m thinking of?
Could you be the girl I really love?
All the people tell me so
But what do all the people know?
I mean, it’s no “Rio” but it’s catchy enough that it should have gone somewhere, and according to AMG, it was until the band’s label folded in 1982 and took with it any promotion for the band, its album, its single, and its success. I don’t even think they even got the chance to shoot a real video, which probably would have helped its chances with the fledgling MTV crowd, which was very into new wave at the time (you know, when MTV wasn’t playing Rod Stewart videos).
So it kind of faded into obscurity, popping up randomly on radio stations like PLJ in the 1980s and 1990s. But for me, it didn’t end there. Between “The Big ’80s” on VH-1, The Wedding Singer, and Grosse Pointe Blank, I was awash in 1980s nostalgia during my last couple of years of college and made at least a few 1980s mix tapes that featured A-Ha, The Thompson Twins, Pat Benatar, Madonna, The Police, Scandal, and Kajagoogoo. But not The Monroes. I even purchased all of Time-Life’s Sounds of the Eighties collection (yeah, the one that you saw advertised on TV, which I’m sure will be its own series of entries on this blog at one point or another). But no Monroes.
Finally, I was at a friend’s party in Philadelphia the year after I graduated and he showed me this new thing on his computer called Napster, which he was using to download obsure hair metal songs. I got a new computer that Christmas and remembering Napster, downloaded the service. The first song I went after was “Einstein on the Beach” by Counting Crows (another song I heard all the time on the radio but didn’t know the name of until I actually looked it up on the Internet); the second was “What Do All The People Know?” It became the centerpiece on the very first mix CD I ever made, The Inane Crap Mix.
It’s rare that “finding” a random, older song happens on a regular radio station anymore. The 1980s and 1990s saw the dawn of preprogrammed playlists and a while new generation of payola. I’m sure that even “retro” cuts on today’s radio are decided on by focus groups run by the station manager and Phil from marketing. Because aside from the ago-old tradition of liking what my friends liked and trading mix tapes, those radio stations were where I learned about music. Of course, considering my taste in music, the jury’s still out on whether or not that was a wasted education.