Depending on how you look at it, the Pointer Sisters’ 1982 compilation Pointer Sisters’ Greatest Hits was either a case of perfect timing or, perhaps, the exact opposite.
For principal sisters Anita, Ruth, and June, 1983 was a big year for the legendary girl group. After releasing a litany of gold albums across the world, they finally broke out into the mainstream with their inarguable pop masterpiece (and expertly named) Break Out, which capitalized on 1981’s Grammy-nominated “Slow Hand” and the following year’s So Excited to fully push the girls into radio stations across the world with a sleek, accessible sound that resulted in their only standalone multiplatinum album to date, but also capturing the R&B/pop zeitgeist in a remarkable way that resulted in them winning two Grammy Awards the following year (and some American Music Awards if you’re really into that).
What was so special about it? After achieving idiosyncratic hits on both the R&B charts and even the country register (remember “Fairytale“?), the departure of founding sibling Bonnie in 1977 freed the girls up to try their own opportunities, eventually finding the sympathetic embrace of the founder of a brand new record label: uber-producer Richard Perry. While the ambitiously named Planet Records only had a four year run before being sold to RCA in 1982 (and was then dissolved three years after that), the Pointers had in them a kindred aural spirit with a hell of a knack of production, and in short time, the girls became the label’s flagship act, achieving a great deal of success in a very small timeframe, shipping out a new single to radio nearly every four months like clockwork. Not all of them charted, but the more the Pointers worked with Perry, the more they were able to hone in on a sound that delivered them to a larger audience without compromising who they were as artists.
As such, Big Break Records (whom, full disclosure, this very writer has worked for before) went all out with Pointer Sisters’ Greatest Hits, expanding this overview of the sisters’ Planet-era to include a litany of B-sides as well as the remix to “I’m So Excited” that was released in 1984 to help continue the Pointers’ hot streak following the explosive success of Break Out. Yet what made Break Out stand out wasn’t so much the fact that it was drastically different from the Perry-produced albums that came before it, so much as this one was remarkably bereft of filler, particularly on its A-side, where back-by-back tracks like “Neutron Dance”, “I’m So Excited”, “Jump (For My Love)”, and “Automatic” made it play like an instant “Best Of” compilation. While the Planet albums that came before were no doubt enjoyable, they, unfortunately, succumbed to bouts of filler, which is what Pointer Sisters’ Greatest Hits looked to immediately correct.
Sure, the hits are here — from their pair of #2-peaking pop smashes (1978’s “Fire” and 1981’s “Slow Hand”) to all-but-forgotten fluff like “American Music” — but what is really striking are the rare times that Hits ventures outside the norm, eschewing barely-remembered sides like “Where Did the Time Go” and “Sweet Lover Man” in favor of album cuts like the pleasing pure pop of “Heart Beat” (from 1982’s So Excited) and the gloriously-dated MOR synth workout that is “Save This Night for Love” (from 1980’s Special Things). Although billed as a “greatest hits” compilation, what we end up getting is a painting of a trio who tried, hard as they could, to make sure each and every album was a lasting statement in its own right, all of this achieved through a deft blending of the actual radio hits and songs that sound very well like they should have been hits; a tricky balancing act if there ever was one.
Yet in pursuing sounds and structures that would ensure radio play, Perry ended up pushing the girls out into some realms that, for better or worse, would instantly date them. Some may find the tones of pure ’80s squelchy keyboards (especially when mixed with sax solos) a fond memory of a time long ago, but on “American Music”, that pairing of instruments dates the song and ages it like ill-fated Muzak, leaving something like the tacked-on remix of “I’m So Excited” as nothing short of a revelation in comparison, that piano-pounding effervescence sounding just as fresh today as it did when it came out all those decades ago.
So when the girls go shopping for styles outside of the rigid R&B/pop aesthetic that Perry specializes in so well, some real nuance and genuine excitement can be found. Case-in-point: the opening to 1979’s “Happiness” comes alive with sultry vocals and jazzy piano licks before transforming into a bass-driven mid-tempo disco number, sounding comfortable for the era while also nodding to the girls’ diverse range of influences. The 1981 album track “What a Surprise”, meanwhile, takes on light funk affectations with grace, the sisters’ strong-but-flippant vocals selling the song’s meaning, which makes sense given that the track was co-written by June and Anita Pointer and therefore carries a bit more of a personal weight to it.
It’s the inclusion of delightful detours like this that keep Greatest Hits afloat, doing its best to make a nearly 70-minute album sounds as colorful and diverse as possible, even as dated production techniques and subpar songs (lookin’ right at you “The Love Too Good to Last”) weave in and out and the constant mid-tempo nature of many of these songs threaten to blur less-distinctive tracks together, especially when absorbed in a single sitting.
“We were coming into our own and realizing what we did best,” Ruth Pointer says in Christian John Wikane’s estimable liner notes for this re-release. “We never tried to be like anyone else anyway. I think it was just a matter of, over time, accepting who we were.” Anita later chimes in saying “We wanted to be pop. We wanted people to know who we were. What Richard Perry did was make us popular. He got the job done.”
And after this 20-track run of memorable numbers, one has to wonder who is left in the world who doesn’t know what the Pointer Sisters stand for, sound like, or will be remembered for — the fact that this very compilation may one day open up a new pair of ears to their feel-good world of all that is good about pop music? The thought alone can’t help but get you feeling so excited …