This nostalgic song about suburban teenage love was unlike anything else on the radio in 1977, and it resonated with listeners who were reminded of happier times in their younger years. The song takes place in Paramus, New Jersey, where the singer/songwriter Dean Friedman grew up, although he was living in the Bronx when he wrote it. Dean told us that Ariel was "an amalgamation of all these cute teenage girls in peasant blouses I had a crush on growing up in Paramus." (Here's our full interview with Dean Friedman
There are lots of specific references in this song that describes the couple's date which leads to a night of lovemaking. While John Mellencamp's "Jack & Diane
" hung out at the Tastee Freez, in New Jersey the Dairy Queen was the ice cream shop/fried food purveyor of choice, and we find out that Ariel had onion rings and a pickle. When we hear about Ariel "collecting quarters for the friends of BAI," that's a reference to the New York City radio station WBAI, which had a listener association called the "friends of BAI." Friedman's brother was a member of this group and did indeed sit by the waterfall in Paramus Park collecting quarters for the station. Other lyrics came directly from Friedman's life as well: his roommate in college had a VW van, and he played his share of gigs in the American Legion Hall.
In this song, Ariel is from "the other side of the Hudson." For the Paramus area of New Jersey, that would be Yonkers or The Bronx on the other side of the Hudson river. Said Friedman, "You're conscious that there are two sides to the Hudson. I was also conscious that where I grew up was very much this side, supposedly idyllic suburbia, the home of shopping centers, the Garden State Plaza, and the Bergen Mall."
At the end of this song, the singer makes love to Ariel with "bombs bursting in air." This isn't merely a metaphor; the couple talks late into the night with the TV on, and at that time, television stations usually "signed off" for a few hours late at night, customarily playing the US national anthem when they did.
When Friedman recorded the single, he substituted "Her name was Ariel, I fell in love with her" for the line "She was a Jewish girl, I fell in love with her." This was done at the behest of his record company, who feared that radio stations in the south wouldn't play a song with the word "Jewish" in it. There was no such antisemitism, and many stations played the album version that included the line. Freidman told us, "I had no influence or leverage. One regret I have is that I let them change the single."
Dean Friedman was signed to a small label called Lifesong Records, and "Ariel" was his first single. The song did so well on the New York radio station WNEW-FM that the station thought Friedman was enlisting his friends to call in and request the song. Friedman played the song on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and The Merv Griffin Show, but Lifesong couldn't print enough copies of the record to keep up with the sudden demand, and the song never made it past #26 on the Hot 100.
The song ended up being Friedman's only chart hit in America, but he did better in the UK, where in 1978 his song "Lucky Stars" made #3 and "Lydia" made #31. With little support from his record company, Friedman declared bankruptcy and got out of his contract. Most of his support was in England, where he was a successful touring act. He moved there in 1998 when he released his album Songs For Grownups.