Canada 1977: Defending Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch”

Even at the age of five, I knew that music had the capacity to amuse, inspire, delight and entertain. But I was also aware that some music had equal amounts of potential to depress, disgust, annoy and aggravate.

Somehow, the 1970s became the perfect storm of overproduced, angst-heavy, tear-jerking power ballads. From Gilbert O’Sullivan’sAlone Again, Naturally” and Eric Carmen’sAll By Myself” to Harry Nilsson’sWithout You,” not to mention a mega-weeper that routinely spilled out of my parents’ stereo during my childhood years, The Carpenters‘ “Solitaire,” we had countless options to get our musical mope on. Even the up-tempo variations on this theme, like The Bee Gees’Tragedy” (the first chart hit I ever truly despised, at the age of seven), are still fully capable of bringing me down in my mid-forties.

Teetering roughly halfway between this chasm of rhyming despair and the relentless optimism of the disco/funk era, may I present a Canadian chart-topper whose musical narrator couldn’t decide whether he was delighted to be in love or terrified at its impact on his basic chemical makeup: Sometimes When We Touch,” the career-defining mega-hit for Toronto native Dan Hill.

Now, on paper, it looks like “Sometimes Where We Touch” should be a feel-good, Canadian success story. It topped the Canadian singles charts, reached #3 in the U.S., and peaked at #13 on the U.K. charts. It helped Hill snag three Juno Awards in 1978 – Composer of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year (for the first release to feature the song, Longer Fuse). It’s been covered by a Who’s Who of entertainers, including Tina Turner, Bonnie Tyler, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, Donny Osmond (whose sister Marie also performed it with Andy Gibb), and fellow Canadian Ginette Reno (in English and French), and even boxer Manny Pacquaio (who may have been inspired by Hill’s description of himself as “a hesitant prize fighter, still trapped within my youth”).

But no good deed (or million-selling song) goes unpunished, so the song that put Hill on the map has been the butt of countless jokes and the source of endless derision over the past four decades. Some of the attention is fairly innocuous, as you’ll see from the 3:30 mark of this sketch from the first episode of SCTV I ever saw (more on that in a few weeks), or this good-natured end-credits mangling of “Sometimes When We Touch” by Homer Simpson and an elderly fireworks expert on a 2014 episode of The Simpsons, which also used the original song as a backdrop for a Springfield fireworks display.

David Letterman launched a more pointed barb in one of my favourite Top Ten lists of his NBC Late Night tenure, “Top Ten Headlines That Would Start a National Panic.” Coming in at #5: “‘Sometimes When We Touch’ Made National Anthem.” (To Letterman’s credit, the #1 item that night was “Late Night To Start Top-Twenty Lists.”) A few years later, as Hill was promoting his 1996 album I’m Doing Fine, CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes aired a sketch that depicted the Canadian military blaring “Sometimes When We Touch” out of huge speakers to discourage terrorist activity.

Where the comedians left off, the music critics were only too eager to pile on. AOL Radio listed “Sometimes When We Touch” at #40 on its 2010 list of 100 Worst Songs Ever; About Entertainment blogger Robert Fontenot ranked it #7 on his list of “The Ickiest Soft-Rock Hits Of The ’70s,” claiming that Hill “bends over backwards to make failure to commit seem somehow noble and romantic” and insisting that “Sometimes When We Touch” lands on a lot of these types of lists because it’s “too emotionally overwrought, the kind of thing you’d hear from a lover who overshot the sensitivity thing and splashed down in an ocean of self-absorption.”

Notwithstanding the fact that hundreds of these types of ballads have been released (and topped the charts) before and after Hill accomplished it in 1977, “Sometimes When We Touch” seemed destined for the dustbin of guilty-pleasure songs. I rarely heard it on radio in the ’80s and early ’90s, even within the classic-hits or request-hour formats; my first chance to take in “Sometimes When We Touch” in its entirety was when it landed on the 1996 Oh What A Feeling box set designed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Juno Awards.

Today, I’ll defend the song for a couple of reasons:

First of all, as a songwriter who’s produced his fair share of soppy love ballads (especially in my teens and early ’20s), I can relate to the love-hate relationship Hill’s audience and detractors have had with “Sometimes When We Touch.” In this brutally honest 2010 article for Maclean’s Magazine, Hill recalls writing the original version (sans the chorus) in 1974 at the age of 19 and excitedly phoning the object of his desire and singing her the song that she inspired. She replied by suggesting that Hill was “too [expletive] intense” and, after he asked her directly what she thought of the song, informing him that she was leaving Toronto for North Carolina, as the Canadian Football League player she had been dating was cut from the Toronto Argonauts, so she’d join him as he headed south. I’m well aware of what it feels like to write a song for a woman (multiple women, actually) and be greeted by indifference or outright rejection; as for the finished version of “Sometimes When We Touch” simultaneously attracting cheers and jeers, I’m also familiar with the concept of writing songs adored by women and dismissed by men (particularly during my first two years of university).

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Secondly, what can I tell you, I like the song from both a lyrical and musical angle. Hill’s impressive vocal range and earnest phrasing (also exemplified on later hits like Carmelia and “The Love of My Life”) are downright refreshing, especially considering the number of mumble-mouthed I-hate-everything types I had to endure while working at a commercial radio station for most of the ’90s. Hill’s approach, augmented by the chorus posted above (written by ’60s hit-maker Barry Mann during a songwriting session with Hill in 1977), shows the vulnerability of a young man trying to make a relationship work while attempting to remain true to himself. Small wonder that, in Hill’s own words:

Famous people from all walks of life started seeking me out, as if I had, over the course of four minutes, freakishly summed up their lives, changed their world and deconstructed their relationships. Therapists wrote to inform me that my song was used as a powerful tool in coaching couples to communicate more effectively. Countless women confessed, recounting their stories in vivid detail, how they conceived their children while my song served as an erotic soundtrack.

Apart from “Sometimes When We Touch,” Hill has won me over in later years (thanks in no small part to my wife Cathy’s ownership of his 1999 greatest hits album The Love of My Life), partly because of his willingness to collaborate with up-and-coming artists. In the mid-’80s, over a decade before Vonda Shepard turned heads as the lounge singer on Ally MacBeal, she and Hill hit the #6 slot on the U.S. singles charts with the duet “Can’t We Try.” Canadian R&B artist Deborah Cox, who had one of my favourite songs of the ’90s with “Who Do U Love,” teamed up with Hill for “The Healing Power of Love” in 1994. In 2011, “Sometimes When We Touch” wound up on the CBC music competition series Cover Me Canada, as performed by contestant Warren Dean Flandez. And, on a personal note, Hill has been a great inspiration to an old friend of mine and a native of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Andrea England, who landed songs on the soundtracks of Dawson’s Creek and Joan of Arcadia as well as recordings by the likes of former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger in the decade following a collaborative session with Hill in the early 2000s.

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Speaking of Guysborough County, my last reason for defending “Sometimes When We Touch” is because Cathy and I have heard Dan Hill play it live, without the original over-the-top string arrangement, at Canso’s Stan Rogers Folk Festival in 2011 (the photo evidence is above). Sitting on outdoor folding chairs on a Sunday afternoon in July, eating Popsicles as we watched Hill sing his most-loved (and most-hated) song for the millionth time – sounding a bit like this recent performance – it somehow felt just right.

And yes, before you ask, he hit the high note at the end. He did it much more subtly than in the original recording, and let it quietly trail off a little bit. But he still hit the high note at the end.

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