Three of Hart’s Part 1: a deep dive into the first three albums from 2019 Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Corey Hart starts with his 1983 debut, First Offense.
In the matter of the People vs. Corey Hart, the jury is still out on whether Mr. Hart is truly guilty of crimes against pop music on his 1983 debut album, First Offense. The arguments for and against conviction are all compelling, if not absolutely conclusive.
In Hart’s defence, it was the early 80s, a time of lawlessness in the pop music landscape. The music video seized control of the public consciousness with its authoritarian regime of style over substance and stars over singers. Montreal-born-and-raised Corey Mitchell Hart presented himself as a PR agent’s dream. Barely out of his teens when he signed his major label contract in 1982, Hart’s pouty good looks matched his naturally raspy baritone and his musical instincts were the perfect antidote for the era’s ostentatious pop style. The wholesome, squeaky clean boy-you-could-bring-home-to-the-folks he was not, but his sex appeal and rebel sneer had a distinctive Canadianness to it that felt safe and — most importantly — mass marketable.
This brings us to the first of First Offense’s transgressions: failing to pull off the white-guy, rock-reggae crossover on “Cheatin’ in School”. The precedence is vast and the evidence indisputable when it comes to appropriating the sounds and styles of a culture that is not inherently your own: unless you are The Police, Elvis Costello, or The Clash, don’t fucking do it. It’s a lesson in authenticity that many learn but few truly heed. The song’s lyrics of secondary school angst and arrested development are competent (if somewhat sophomoric in comparison to Hart’s more iconic songs) enough, but would have been better suited set against a tighter, tougher rock-orientated arrangement more in his wheelhouse. Instead, “Cheatin’ in School”, like its protagonist, plagiarizes off Hart’s contemporaries, copying their mistakes instead of getting it right.
Since we’re on the topic of plagiarism, let’s move on to the second charge against First Offense: blatantly ripping off a better song for a weaker one. I introduce the album’s second track, “Peruvian Lady”, as Exhibit A. Again, I don’t completely blame Hart, given pop music’s long and checkered history of trying (and failing) to upcycle melodies, riffs, and chord progressions from proven hits. Perhaps if Hart had been more judicious in the tracklisting, relegating “Peruvian Lady” to First Offense’s B-Side rather than making it the record’s second track, his crime would seem less severe. Lyrically speaking, the song has some merit (the semi-veiled references to cocaine addiction speak to Hart’s experiences as the son of an absentee father with substance use disorder), but its musical transgressions cannot be overlooked. In its prevalent position, “Peruvian Lady”’s blatant plundering of “Who Can It Be Now?” (minus that opening sax solo), the international #1 hit from Australia’s Men At Work, sticks out like a sore, generic thumb.
While his defence team may argue that these are all minor transgressions, given that the two songs in question are both album tracks and not singles, I suggest that those facts only further and solidify the final, most severe of First Offense’s crimes: Second-Degree Involuntary Debut Long-Player Mediocrity, colloquially referred to as “All-Filler-No-Killer”. The defence will point towards circumstantial evidence to suggest this is a trumped-up charge. They’ll ask, “If First Offense is such a full-on offensive first record, then why would Hart have garnered four Juno and a Best New Artist Grammy nomination in 1984?” The answer is there in the question itself: of his four Juno nods, three were for “Sunglasses At Night” alone (Composer of the Year, Single of the Year, and Best Video — the only award it won), and the fourth, like the Best New Artist Grammy nomination, was for Hart himself (Best Male Vocalist of the Year). None of those accolades were for First Offense the album. I could add insult to injury by pointing out that First Offense album sales in Canada only began in earnest with Hart’s Stateside success, but regardless, I suggest it’s evident to all that the defence’s position is weak and as opaque as Mr. Hart’s signature shades.
The artist has gone on record saying that the whole of First Offense was written and recorded before he penned “Sunglasses At Night”, its undisputed highlight and album anchor. On the album’s original vinyl release, its other single, “It Ain’t Enough” — his first stab at lighters-aloft balladry — sat as Side A’s penultimate track; it came right before “Araby (She’s Just A Girl)”, a song that met its untimely and unjustified demise when it was dropped from the U.S. version. The Canadian edition also got a revision less than a year after release, deleting track “Don’t Keep Your Heart” to accommodate non-album single “Lamp At Midnite”. In 1983, the album-as-art philosophy held little sway in the land of Top 40 pop. Singles were still king, and singles that could translate to video were guaranteed solid gold (as supported by “Sunglasses At Night”’s best video Juno win). Album tracks could be dropped and replaced on a whim. Hence the involuntary mediocrity charge. It likely wasn’t Hart’s intent to release a spotty record of disparate extremes. Why “She Got The Radio” didn’t succeed as a single is baffling, if not predictable. It’s a solid tune but lacks the oomph of “Sunglasses At Night”. As if often the case, when you pair a video-ready hit, complete with killer synths, rock guitar bollocks, and an iconic lyrical hook that would define a style and attitude for the ages, the other tracks will sound sub-standard in comparison.
It must be stated that though my conviction and confidence that these arguments are sound and reasonable in the present (some thirty-six years on from its release), I bring these charges forward reluctantly and not without sympathy. That’s my own (amateurishly photographed) Corey-Hart-signed copy of First Offense pictured above. For years, that vinyl record sat as the crowning jewel of my budding record collection and was the envy of my acid-washed-denim- and Jelly-Bracelet-wearing peers. I still get an undeniable endorphin rush when I hear those pulsing synths at the start of “Sunglasses At Night”. Nothing will ever take the song’s iconic status away from it or its songwriter. Its parent album, however, doesn’t pass muster as a classic, no matter how much anyone wants it to. Though it contains solid examples of Hart’s songwriting skills in the expertly delivered sincerity of “It Ain’t Enough”, the universally loved “Sunglasses At Night”, and pitch-perfect performances on “Lamp At Midnite” and “She Got the Radio”, that’s not enough to acquit First Offense of its more blatant musical transgressions.