The mainstream “pop-rock” genre of music has never gotten much respect from the critical establishment. If you record a catchy little pop song on shitty equipment and sell five hundred copies to your cult following, the critics will call you an “artist”. If you record a catchy little pop song on top-of-the-line equipment and sell five million copies to soccer moms and 12-year-old girls, the critics will call you a hack. Well fuck that! Great music is great music! It’s really freaking hard to write a simple three minute pop song! Anyone who can do it brilliantly and consistently gets mad respect in my book. If you think Rick Springfield was just some pretty boy soap star who made records because he could, you’re in need of some serious learnin’! Gather ‘round, ye uninformed, and dig what I’ve got to tell you! Rick Springfield was an artist, and Working Class Dog is the greatest pop-rock album of all-time. Believe it!
True enough: at the time of its release, Working Class Dog seemed an unlikely candidate for enduring artistic significance. Springfield, who’d scored a top 20 hit as a teen idol pop star with 1972’s “Speak to the Sky”, had transitioned to acting after a suspected payola scandal involving his label Capitol had caused many radio stations to boycott his music. He starred as “himself” on the Saturday morning cartoon Mission: Magic! and later played Dr. Noah Drake on the hit soap General Hospital. But Working Class Dog was no opportunistic cash-in. Springfield, in fact, had already finished the album before he took the soap role. That his new-found stardom opened a few doors is hard to dispute. But even harder to dispute is that the music was more than worthy. From the jump, Working Class Dog comes off like an album that was made for the radio. And if you don’t think that’s a compliment, you know nothing about power pop music. Imbuing crunchy, high energy guitar rock with ringing melodies and razor-sharp hooks, opening track “Love Is Alright Tonite” just sounds like a hit. And it was – reaching the U.S. top 20 in late ’81. It was preceded there by two top tens off the same album – the Sammy Hagar penned “I’ve Done Everything For You” (#8) and the #1 smash “Jessie’s Girl”. The latter may be the greatest radio rock song ever recorded, and today it remains a staple of “classic” rock formats. In this current era in which commercial success is equated with well-honed mediocrity and soulless pandering to market demographics, the brilliance of Springfield’s artistry may be lost on most. But it’s not lost on me. Never one to underestimate the importance of a pleasing melody and a stick-in-your-head chorus, I consider the man an all-time great in his field.
It seems unnecessary to elaborate on “Jessie’s Girl”. Anyone with taste will concur that it’s the Mona Lisa of pop-rock songs and the Citizen Kane of top 40 hits. I saw Springfield debut it on the TV program Solid Gold, and it was truly a life-changing experience. The chorus knocked my socks off, and the guitar bridge was epic! I had my mom take me to the record store the next day, and home I went with the “Jessie’s Girl” 45 (Had this series of events never transpired, surely I’d now be a gaming enthusiast or antique collector instead of a music blogger). When a full LP arrived a few weeks later, it was no letdown. Co-produced by industry titan Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac, Grateful Dead) and featuring the work of seasoned session players like Robben Ford (George Harrison, Joni Mitchell) and Neil Giraldo (Pat Benatar), Working Class Dog was a polished product in all the best ways. But it was the songs that stood out the most. Springfield wasn’t trying to change the world or revolutionize music, but he sure knew what mattered to people. Who couldn’t relate to songs about broken hearts, unrequited love, and the escape from mundane frustrations afforded by a hot date on Friday night? Not unlike ‘70s acts such as The Babys or even the great Cheap Trick, Springfield achieved a blissful marriage between high-powered arena rock and carefully crafted, melody-driven pop. Fun, energetic, and expertly targeted towards the lovelorn adolescent in all of us, his songs embody the spirit of the early ‘80s in a purely good way. And although Springfield’s romantic frustrations were not as convincing as those of a less photogenic contemporary like Joe Jackson, you just couldn’t hold his good looks against him. So what if he’d banged six chicks since lunchtime? When he got up on stage and sang “Jessie’s Girl”, we didn’t doubt for a second that he felt our pain! He was one of us – singing about the girls he couldn’t have and doing it better than it had ever been done. And the girls, they loved him even more than we fellas did.
Working Class Dog is by no means 100 percent filler-free (few albums of the time were!). But its best tracks are sheer perfection, and even its cheesy moments are not without a certain charm. Lesser known songs such as “Hole in My Heart” and the reggae inflected “Everybody’s Girl” probably could have been hits, while the main departure from the three-minute pop formula, album closer “Inside Silvia”, is oddly trippy yet quite beautiful. Springfield’s songwriting acumen, while surely the vital cog, is just one part of the awesomeness. The man’s vocal chops deserve equal billing, and they especially shine on his impassioned interpretation of Hagar’s “I’ve Done Everything For You”. The world may have first perceived of Rick Springfield as an actor who could sing, but three songs into Working Class Dog, you realized it was the other way around. If you somehow still pegged him for a flash-in-the-pan, another thirteen Top 40 hits over the next seven years would ultimately prove you way wrong.
Perhaps what I love best about Working Class Dog is that it both typifies and transcends its era. When you put the album on, it’s like you’re traveling back in time. It just feels like the early ‘80s, in all the best ways. It transports you to a more innocent age – when young couples didn’t “hook up” but actually went on dates, The Greatest American Hero was killing the Nielsen ratings, and “gaming” meant you went to the mall arcade and fed quarters into the Donkey Kong machine. But whereas most popular recordings from the same period succeed as nostalgia pieces, Working Class Dog just plain succeeds. Like anything well-constructed, its superb songs and indelible melodies have held up over the long haul. The likes of “I’ve Done Everything for You” and “Love Is Alright Tonite” sound as alive and infectious now as they did the day the album was released. Compared to “classic” power pop acts like 20/20, the Plimsouls, and the like, Rick Springfield surely polished and “mainstreamed” the three-minute pop medium for a mass audience. But that’s not always a bad thing. Some music is just meant to be massive. Can you imagine “Jessie’s Girl” as an obscure “cult” hit that only hipsters bought? The mere thought throws me into a near depression. A great pop song that doesn’t get radio airplay is like the proverbial tree falling with no one around to hear it. For a number of years in the early ‘80s, Rick Springfield gave the masses great pop songs. And the masses loved it. Dude gets my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame vote!