[17 July 2009]
More than 70 years after Edgar Rice Burroughs first saw his Tarzan of the Apes novel published, Baltimora had one of the biggest hits of the ‘80s with “Tarzan Boy”. A perfect dance pop confection incorporating playful lyrics about “monkey business on a sunny afternoon” with Tarzan’s iconic yell, the song spent an incredible six months on the Billboard Hot 100 beginning in October of 1985, eventually peaking at #13. A few years later, “Tarzan Boy” returned to the chart for three more months after being featured on the soundtrack of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III and on a popular commercial for Listerine mouthwash.
Jimmy McShane, the flamboyant Irish front man for Baltimora, died in 1995 from complications resulting from AIDS. Six years later, Tom Hooker, a successful Italo Disco performer and producer in the ‘80s, revealed that while McShane appeared in the Baltimora videos and on their record covers, he wasn’t the vocalist of the group. Instead, McShane was lip-synching to the voice of Maurizio Bassi, the man who produced Baltimora.
Although popular music has always embraced visuals to sell records, from Ricky Nelson’s beautiful face to the Temptations’ well-rehearsed choreography, the rise of MTV and the success of music videos took that dependency on image to a much higher level. Suddenly groups like Culture Club and Dead or Alive were showcasing charismatic cross-dressers, Cyndi Lauper was a Technicolor goddess, Duran Duran was a teenage girl’s wet dream, and Madonna ruled the world.
As the Buggles famously sang, video killed the radio star. Beautiful women like Zelma Davis and Katrin Quinol were hired to perform in clips for C+C Music Factory and Black Box because Martha Walsh, who recorded the vocals for both acts, was deemed too large to appeal to potential audiences. Milli Vanilli was fronted by Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, two dancers who couldn’t sing but mastered the art of looking pretty.
And in 1985, Maurizio Bassi asked Jimmy McShane to be the public face of Baltimora.
In a way, it’s ironic. It could be debated endlessly whether or not A-Ha would have had as huge a hit with “Take Me On” if the video hadn’t been so creative and immensely popular, and it would be hard to argue that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” would have been a Top 5 hit in 1984 without the famous short-length film he released to promote it. But Baltimora’s video for “Tarzan Boy” has never been a particularly memorable video.
The success of the song can be attributed to something almost ridiculously old-fashioned now, when artists lip-synch their way through “live” concerts and use auto tune to disguise their complete lack of vocal talent: “Tarzan Boy” is a good song, one people enjoy hearing. Perhaps Maurizio Bassi should have trusted himself more instead of hiring an actor to cover for him (literally). But then again, hindsight is 20/20.