“A few of your buddies, they sure look shady
Blades are long, clenched tight in their fist
Aimin’ straight at your back
And I don’t think they’ll miss”
— from “Back Stabbers” by The O’Jays
You may not be able to choose your family, but thank God you can choose your friends, right? Well, that would depend on your skill as a judge of character. The option of picking friends might be a comforting privilege for those bogged down by familial discord and dysfunction, but sadly, the right to choose doesn’t always yield a positive outcome, especially in country, pop and rhythm and blues. Inspired by a live performance I saw on TV last week of Rick Springfield performing his breakthrough ’80s hit about a pal with his eye on the wrong prize (see below), I’ve curated a YouTube videologue of the worst friends in the best songs.
“Back Stabbers” The O’Jays The sentiment of The O’Jays 1972 hit has always struck me as bordering on paranoia, but you never know whom you’ll encounter on the love train doing God knows what for the love of money.
“Losers, Weepers (Part 1)” Etta James The Sweetest Peaches wasn’t so sweet (more like a sour old prune) on her best single (No. 94, 1970), which, in my book and on my iPod, sounds even better than “Tell Mama,” “I’d Rather Go Blind” and her signature “At Last.” Granted, the woman she’s singing to sounds like a piece of work who probably doesn’t deserve romantic bliss, and one wonders why anyone would want to be her best friend at all. But if you’re going to accept the gig, and you feel compelled to point out the errors of her deceitful ways, must you scoop up her discarded man while you’re at it? Isn’t that against the girlfriends rules or something?
“That’s What Friends Are for” Barbra Mandrell If you (like me) found the 1985 single of the same title that Dionne (Warwick) and Friends took to No. 1 too sickeningly sweet, get a load of Mandrell’s 1976 take on the titular concept. She’d score bigger hits on both sides of a cheating situation (“The Midnight Oil,” “Married, But Not to Each Other,” “Woman to Woman,” “[If Loving You Is Wrong] I Don’t Want to Be Right” and “One of a Kind Pair of Fools”), but what a beautiful victim of love she made when the one that got away ended up with her BFF.
“Friends” Jody Watley I don’t know who inspired so much venom from Watley on her 1989 Top 10 hit. Maybe the woman who dared to take her place after she dumped that cad in “Looking for a New Love.” Whoever she was — and of course, it was a she — one good thing came from her backstabbing: It gave Watley her greatest hit.
“So Called Friend” Texas To get an idea of just how not-so-influential-yet Ellen Degeneres was in the early ’90s, consider this: When this 1993 single moonlighted the following year as the theme song of Degeneres’s first TV sitcom (initially called These Friends of Mine), it still wasn’t enough to break Scotland’s Texas in the U.S.
“Friend of Mine” Kelly Price She cried ugly in the video, but Price sang so beautifully on her 1998 debut single (the original album version, not the remix, which became a No. 1 R&B and No. 12 pop hit), a tour-de-force R&B saga of love and betrayal. Am I the only one who thought Price would go on to be a much bigger star?
“Don’t Waste Your Time” Yarbrough and Peoples I suppose that all is fair in love and war and friendship when you’re coveting your best friend’s man, as Alisa Peoples was doing on this 1984 No. 1 R&B single, which I used to own on 45. I’ve never been completely convinced that her poor reviews weren’t tainted by her own agenda. “Are you sure?” for sure.
“Friends of Mine” Duran Duran Despite the obtuse lyrics of its penultimate track, whose video I didn’t even know existed until today, I still say Duran Duran’s 1981 eponymous debut was one of the best albums of the ’80s.
“Layla” Eric Clapton Based on the true story of Eric Clapton’s then-unrequited love for good friend and sometime musical cohort George Harrison’s then-wife Patti Boyd, who later also became Clapton’s wife and ex-wife. The electric 1971 original is a rock & roll classic, but it’s the 1992 Unplugged version that still makes me want to go out and fall for a good friend’s significant other (of course, not daring to break the bro code by getting involved with him, even if it’s after my friend has left the romantic picture) just so I can say I know exactly how it feels.
“Jessie’s Girl” Rick Springfield It was Springfield’s first and only No. 1 hit, he recently performed acoustic on the couch when he was co-hosting The View. Though it wasn’t my favorite Springfield hit by any stretch (an honor that would go to 1983’s “Affair of the Heart”), it holds up surprisingly well. But Jessie’s best friend doesn’t come off any better unplugged today than he did 32 years ago.