This month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of an overlooked landmark of blue-eyed soul — Hall and Oates’ Abandoned Luncheonette.
But I’m not going to write about that. Digging up and sharing “Laughing Boy” to my Facebook wall sent me on a tangent to locate another lost “jewel” from their 1974 follow-up, War Babies. Produced by Todd Rundgren, this LP was as close as the Philadelphia duo came to exploring the boundaries of art rock (Daryl Hall would revisit the medium with his Robert Fripp-produced Sacred Songs). It’s a post-traumatic tale of life in the stagflationary doldrums, when “radical Islam” was merely a pawn to be maneuvered against an existential Soviet threat.
The song I was searching for is track 2, side 2, entitled “I’m Watching You (A Mutant Romance).” Now, unless you’ve been under a rock or living with Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen in a swamp, you are surely aware of the Snowden revelations of sweeping government snooping. “I’m Watching You” eerily anticipates such a claustrophobic dystopia by nearly four decades.
It’s the first-person narrative of a “dirty spy with a TV eye” following the wanderings of a prostitute (“Jewel”) through the city, the sweeping movement of the surveillance camera captured by Tommy Mottola’s synthesizer. There’s enough resolution to make out the smile on her lips; she reminds him of a girl he used to know in junior high (my wife and kids, on a field trip to a police public safety office, were rather disquieted by the detail the cameras could detect — “The wasps looked like dinosaurs, dad!”).
Our hidden narrator bemoans the moments when she disappears with a client into a building. But when she reemerges he can “love” her, “as a man can love a woman.”
It makes you want to sign up for HTTPS Everywhere and Do Not Track Me, shut down the kids’ chat sites and cover your computer’s camera with duct tape. Todd Rundgren’s sweet slide guitar and angelic backing vocals, far from making this savory, only intensify the irony.
But it serves as a troubling insight into a world of some troubled snoops (and they are bound to exist), the tension between the necessity of public safety and private fantasy, between what is real and what is imagined in the darkness behind watching eyes…