It's probably obvious by now, but the Seventies Survival Project is dead. I've just found too many missing songs to continue in the spirit I originally intended. It's too bad, because it was fun.
But in the spirit of Pointless Obsession, I've decided -- don't ask why -- to really, really know 1990. To that end I am putting all my 1990 albums on my mp3 player, and investigating all the important ones I don't know, and even ones I dismissed at the time. I am using RateYourMusic's top albums of 1990 and esoteric albums of 1990 as my main references. This is especially useful in two ways: there's a lot of hiphop I don't know, and RateYourMusic is over-represented with metalheads. Of all the areas I have been largely ignorant of in recent years, those are the two I have been most interested in recently. Prog and folky stuff are also pretty well represented.
On the other hand, country hardly shows up there, and the annual Village Voice critics poll is unlikely to be much help there either. Anyone know a reliable source of best country albums by year? Modern jazz doesn't fare too well, either (though jazz dominates the RateYourMusic charts well into the 1960s).
I'm also deliberately trying to know as little as possible about the albums before I listen to them. Album titles and covers are often a giveaway, of course, but I'm not reading about albums before I listen to them.
Very preliminary listening reports:
Megadeth's Rust in Peace, despite the stupid title, is a fantastic album. I keep listening to it in headphones three times in a row, and none of it has palled. That one's a purchase.
Bathory's Hammerheart is not bad, but kinda silly. I mean, even for metal. Viking concept metal is just hard to take seriously, and much of it drags. Hugely influential, apparently.
Brand Nubian's One for All is very very groovy. I don't know why I'd never listened to it before, since I've known for a long time that I like most of the Native Tongues-related stuff. Another definite purchase.
Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, despite the dumb title and the standard tiresome braggadocio, has monstrous beats. Probable purchase.
Mike Oldfield's Amarok sounds like a meandering mess.
Two more songs missing from these Billboard Hot 100 sets that should certainly be there: The Spinners' "I'll Be Around" (peaked at #3, 1972) and "Games People Play" (peaked at 5, 1975).
Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, The Closer I Get to You
These sappy part-switching duets never seem to go away, or change. This one gets more than a little incoherent: "Sweeter and sweeter love grows," Donny sings, "and heaven's there for those who fool the tricks of time, but the hearts of love define true love in a special way." I think the key to singing lines like that is to not think about them at all. Roberta Flack only gets to sing the chorus, which barely changes and that's probably just as well. They only sing one line together, at the very end: "Pulling closer, sweet as the gravity". O-kay.
"The Closer I Get to You" is awash in long synth notes that are gated or pitch-shifted or something -- vocabulary help requested -- to produce a changing effect in the background that is weird for a pop song, and is one of those things that becomes very noticeable once a record gets a little warped, or on almost any cassette recording, which will give it an unignorable warble.
Eddie Kendricks, Boogie Down
Perfectly pleasant disposable bouncy pop-funk. One solid groove (with its eight beats divided into a nice 1-2 1-2-3 1-2-3 pattern), no especially interesting structural changes (though a lot of decorative changes in the arrangement), completely pointless repetitve lyrics. There's some buried horn that sounds like it's trying to burst out into a KC & the Sunshine Band song, and some strings that escaped from Silver Convention. It does have a nice extended transition from the chorus back to the verse, albeit with synthesizer farts.
I'm curious about the history of the word "boogie". In pop music it's associated both with funky disco and with danceable southern guitar rock (e.g., Little Feat). How did that happen?
Chuck Mangione, Feels So Good
I'd forgotten that this has a funky Santana-like intro. This song was so ubiquitous in Lite Muzak contexts for a while that it was impossible to like. Even now the main sax riff makes me snarl, and the wacka wacka funk lite guitar behind it doesn't help, either. But I really like the guitar break (played by Grant Geissman) that starts at 1:39; this whole section sounds like it could be from a 1980s Carla Bley album. "Feels So Good", as was discussed in the comments at Jason Hare's weblog recently, is one of the last instrumentals to make the top five. The seventies were the last good decade for hit instrumentals.
Natalie Cole, Our Love
Typical sappy seventies ballad. Hackneyed strings: yes. Harp glissandos: oh yes. Cole has a great voice, and makes a dumb song bearable, especially on the extended, lightly bouncy bridge near the end of the song. Almost all of Cole's 1970s hits were written by the production team of Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy (and almost all Jackson and Yancy's hits were sung by Cole). Yancy came out of gospel music; he and Cole married, divorced, Yancy returned to gospel, and died at 34 of a heart attack.
Santa Esmeralda, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
Not the worst weird disco cover. Santa Esmeralda made spanish-flavored disco, though they were actually French studio musicians fronted by a saxophonist/singer named Leroy Gomez. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" takes up an entire side of their Casablanca LP debut. The album actually has passionate advocates among disco revivalists. The followup album was called House of the Rising Sun, I'm afraid. I feel compelled to share the cover with you:
And that's all for today!
Seals & Crofts' "Summer Breeze", which peaked at #6 in 1972 and is unquestionably one of the top 100 songs of 1972 (it should rank around #66) is not in the top 100 of 1972 set. Hmm. (The number 100 song in the set I was given is the Isley Brothers' "Pop That Thang", which peaked at #24.)
"Summer Breeze" would probably have made my top 500, but it's not one of my favorites. I can't help wondering what else is missing, though. The game's still fun, anyway.
The Commodores, Three Times a Lady
I can no longer hear this song without hearing Eddie Murphy singing "Fee Times a Mady". There's nothing objectively wrong with this song -- nothing outstandingly mockable, apart from perfectly ordinary cliche-mongering like "the moments I cherish with every beat of my heart" -- and the arrangement is inoffensive, spare, with relatively light use of the mandatory strings, and I like the trembly effect on the -- guitar? I'm not sure -- after "nothing to keep us apart". I just can't stand Lionel Richie's treacly singing -- I'm sorry, Jason -- and the way he puts extra-sincere emphasis on "twice" drives me crazy. Why is "twice" important? What does it mean, damnit? How was she a lady the first time? Does "three times a lady" mean anything at all? Bah.
Fancy, Wild Thing
I despise the neanderthal original, but this leering remake is worse. Features an unconvincing moaning Penthous Pet. One of the low points of the 1970s, unredeemed by, well, anything. Okay, the watery sound of the bass is kinda interesting. Has an electronic keyboard solo and a bridge for no good reason. Fancy were a studio creation, and had one more hit, "Touch Me".
Major Harris, Love Won't Let Me Wait
More female moaning! Well, this is a much better song, at any rate. Awfully hard to take seriously though, as the moaning gets pretty silly -- and this is the five and a half minute extended-moan mix -- while Harris sings a long string of gems like "take my hand / we will take a flight / and spend the night / in a wonderland", and "I need your love so desperately / and only you can set me free / when I make love to you / we will explode in ecstasy". The whole song is a beg for sex, not withstanding that she's already moaning up a storm. Anyway, it's a tasteful, restrained arrangement in the Philly style -- Harris had been a member of the Delfonics -- played by MFSB, and has a non-obvious chord change the first time through the chorus. "Love Won't Let Me Wait" was Harris's only top 40 hit, and he eventually returned to the Delfonics.
This morning I was browsing Helen Reddy's songs on my mp3 player, and suddenly realized that "I Am Woman" was missing. I knew I hadn't deleted it. I looked through the original files on my computer for the 1970s Survival Project -- supposedly the Billboard top 100 for every year in the 1970s. It wasn't there either.
"I Am Woman" was a number-one single. There is no way it wasn't one of the top 100 singles of 1972 by any reasonable calculation. (For example, Charley Pride's "Kiss an Angel Good Morning", which is on the 1972 list, peaked at number 21.) So I figured, crap, the whole 1970s Survival Project is hosed. If a big hit like that was missing, there must be others; there must be rights problems or something, and the compilers just quietly removed songs and renumbered the list.
But after cursory checking, I wasn't able to find any other obvious omissions. Earth Wind & Fire's version of "Got to Get You into My Life", for example, isn't among the mp3s in my 1970s set; it peaked at number 9, and maybe should be among the top 100 of 1978, but I don't have Billboard's lists, so can't be sure.
"I Am Woman", though, obviously should be there. So what I'm wondering is, did Billboard just screw up at the time they made their year-end list? Does anyone reading this have the Billboard year-end charts?
(For the record, I like "I Am Woman" and it would have survived a few plays and possibly made my top 300, definitely not my top 100.)
No one wants to hear that something they like is crap. People will come to that conclusion on their own -- and often enough enjoy the crap anyway -- but no one, expressing a sincere appreciation of something, is interested in being told why it's crap. And why should they be? If someone shows me how to like something, they have enlarged my life. What do they do for me by teaching me how to dislike something? Especially since what I've been probably taught is not how to dislike something but why. The visceral reaction -- I like it -- will remain, even if I am only muttering it to myself.
Of course there are good reasons to write negative criticism. It's useful to explore the way one's own taste works; it can articulate things for other people who share your reaction; there are few things that are perfect, and analyzing flaws is interesting, and can improve one's appreciation of things one likes; etc. But anyone who trashes something and thinks they're setting anyone straight -- thinks they're doing anything other than writing for the people who agree with them -- is fooling themself. I write some cutting things, but I don't imagine or hope to change anyone's mind. I'll defend my opinions only as things that are there, not the whole thing; part of the truth, not The Truth.
A friend reacted with incredulity to my assertion that the Captain and Tennille's version of "Shop Around" could stand with the original. (By which, to be clear, I don't mean it's necessarily the equal of the original; I mean that it does not shame the original, and more than adequately justifies its own existence.) The friend said his faith in my taste was badly shaken -- I'm not sure how rhetorically he meant this -- and invited me to convince him. This didn't make me angry -- it's par for the course in casual music opinion-slinging -- but it did solidify a position I've been working toward for years. Which is: I'm not going to justify my reactions, and I'm not going to try to convince anyone. Explain, yes -- this is why I like what I like -- but not justify; not participate in the social hierarchy of taste, not try to move the Captain and Tennille up the ladder nor put deodorant powder on the stink of my appreciation for them. Your resistance is your own, and I'm not going to make extra effort to overcome it.
I invited the response by saying "yes it is" after my initial assertion: a rhetorical acknowledgment that I was making an extraordinary claim that was bound to be questioned. I oughtn't do that. I am interested in explorations of the social hierarchies of taste -- the kind Phil Ford does at Dial M for Musicology, for example -- but I want to keep those hierarchies out of my own reactions to music. Much of the point of the Seventies Song Survival project is to come at everything with fresh ears, as much as possible. Hearing the Captain and Tennille's cover of "Shop Around" as though for the first time was exciting, intensely pleasurable, a kind of joy. And I'm long past the point of needing to define myself to others by my taste in art.
A few random observations from the Seventies Song Survival Project, things of which I was inadequately aware until listening attentively with headphones:
Barbra Streisand, Evergreen
I admit that this is an impressively complex melody, a great tune for a great singer, and it's beautiful. I don't hate it. But it's too schmaltzy for me to enjoy much, especially since the lyrics don't move me. I love the coda, though. It makes me feel it's not a waste to sit through the song.
Keith Carradine, I'm Easy
I like this song, just not enough to keep hearing it. Very nice acoustic guitar playing, and a melody, lyrics, and mood that remind me of good James Taylor songs. I hadn't known that we have Robert Altman to thank for Carradine's brief music career: he heard Carradine's songs, cast him in Nashville, and put several of his songs on the soundtrack. Actors' hit songs are often dire, but this is a decent exception.
Ringo Starr, Oh My My
A pleasant, bouncy song. Wouldn't be out of place on a decent pub-rock album; odd to hear this as an American hit.
Bay City Rollers, Money Honey
True one-hit wonders are rare, notwithstanding VH1's generous definition. Bands we think of as one-hit wonders are usually like this: First, an awesome hit single that everybody remembers. Second, a not-terrible follow-up from the same album, which is a smaller hit because while everybody wants it to be great it's just okay. Third, a song from the second album, which does okay and signals the commercial end of the band's career. This is the second song.
Shaun Cassidy, Da Doo Ron Ron
Listened to all the way through out of duty.
Rick Dees & His Cast of Idiots, Disco Duck
Duty aided by a drink. If there's anything worse than a limp cover by a teen idol, it's a trend novelty song. Even by the standard of, say, Ray Stevens, this song is awful. I'd go into detail, but then I'd be a guy writing in depth about "Disco Duck".
Kenny Rogers, She Believes In Me
"I stay out late at night and play my songs / and sometimes other nights can be so long." Poetry. Boy, this is a gloopy song. There's nothing about the melody or arrangement worth mentioning, and the lyrics rival "Beth" for self-involved musician paying lip service to the woman who loves him: "I told her someday if she was my girl I could change the world with my little songs. I was wrong. But she has faith in me, and so I go on trying faithfully; and who knows, maybe on some special night, if my song is right, I will find a way, find a way." Her faith in him, though, is shaky: "While she lays crying, I fumble with a melody or two." She certainly has reason to be jealous: "I stumble to the kitchen for a bite, then I see my old guitar in the night, just waiting for me like a secret friend, and there's no end." It's unclear what there's no end of. Molasses, maybe. She comes back around, though: "She says to wake her up when I am through. God our love is true." Well, hers anyway. Strings: Yes. Portentous drum fills: Yes. Written by a fellow named Steve Gibb, though not the heavy-metal playing son of Barry.
Peaches & Herb, Shake Your Groove Thing
Reasonably funky. I don't think I can spin you like a top while shaking my groove thing, though. The verse is in two parts, and there's an odd little key-change (I think) bridge that descends in steps ("there's nothing more that I like to do"), followed by a horn break and the second part of the verse near the end. It's more musically interesting than a lot of disco, but the only part I like a lot is the bridge.
Five women have played Peaches opposite Herb Fame; this was the third Peaches, Linda Greene. "Shake Your Groove Thing" was written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris. Perren was part of the Corporation, the songwriting team that wrote hits for the Jackson 5. Perren is all over the hits of the late seventies, co-writing "I Will Survive", "If I Can't Have You", "Boogie Fever", "More Than a Woman", "Reunited", "Love Machine", and many other hits.
Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Wake Up Everybody (Part 1)
A McFadden & Whitehead song. Not bad, kinda groovy. Cool harp-like keyboard glissandos at he beginning. Nice rhythm section. One of those earnest songs that meander wordily because it needs to fill out lines ("the world has changed so very much from what it used to be"), and reaches for rhymes that bring the sentiment down with a thud ("the only thing we have to do is put it in our minds / surely things will work out, they do it every time"), and awkward rhymes on unstressed syllables ("there is so much hatred, war and pover-tee"). And then there's the exhortation to the doctors: "Make the old people well. They're the ones who suffer and who catch all the hell. They don't have so very long before their judgment day. Won't you make them happy before they pass away?" Under the morbidity, I think the idea here is that if we can't cure old people of being old, maybe we should give them happy drugs. Anyway, one good lyric in a song whose heart is in the right place: "The world won't get no better if we just let it be." (So, uh, forget what I said about things just working out every time if we think good thoughts.)
Tom T. Hall, I Love
Let's get something straight right away: Tom T. Hall is one of the great American songwriters. "Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On", "I Hope It Rains at My Funeral", "I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew", "Salute to a Switchblade", "I Flew Over Our House Last Night", "Hang Them All", not to mention "Harper Valley PTA": that's just a beginning. Tom T. Hall is a treasure. That said, "I Love" is a serious contender for worst song by a great songwriter. It has the depth of a Hallmark card. It cries out for parody ("I, love, mangled baby ducks, rubber hockey pucks, tennis shoes that fit, and grit"). It is thankfully short -- two minutes six seconds, all verse and no chorus, unless "and I love you too" qualifies as a chorus -- and I doubt it took him much longer to write. It is pure sentiment, ungrounded in story or character. Strings: Yes. Key change: Yes. Profound: You be the judge.
New York City, I'm Doin' Fine Now
You could make a reggae song out of this pretty easily with that guitar just hitting the three beat every measure. There's strings and horns all over the place, not just coloring the song but carrying the melody. The arrangement has a lot of attention to detail but nothing arresting; the lyrics are neither good nor bad. It's hard to hear what made this a hit, especially by an unknown band. A Thom Bell production, which certainly helps. Their road band included Rodgers & Edwards pre-Chic.
Tony Orlando, Tie a Yellow Ribbon
Velma and I just last night watched Michael O'Donohue's Saturday Night Live "impression" of Tony Orlando and Dawn with fifteen-inch needles plunged through their eyes. Anyway. It is weird how this song -- the number one song of 1973 -- loaned its metaphor to people welcoming the Iran hostages home, inasmuch as the song is about a guy coming home from prison. If I were a hostage, or a soldier in Iraq, I don't think I'd appreciate the equivalence. It's one of those cheesy songs that it's hard to hear with fresh ears. My enjoyment of the bouncy melody is undercut by the smarminess of Orlando's delivery -- I swear I can hear the glittering suit -- and the uneasy marriage of the chipperness of the melody (and the oompah bassline) with the anxious lyrics. (By the way, could he not receive letters in jail? Was he in solitary for three years?) I like the way the verse modulates (if I am using the word correctly) into the chorus, and the harmonica. I'm a sucker for harmonica. Dawn barely make it into the song, and I don't think it would have been any less popular without them.
Pete Hamill, who'd written a piece called "Going Home" about an ex-convict looking for a yellow handkerchief tied to an oak, sued for infringement even though he admitted he'd heard the story in oral tradition. He lost.
Rhythm Heritage, Theme from S.W.A.T.
Curtis Mayfield lite. Man, I loved this when I was a kid. It's still pretty great as tv themes go: it's got two main riffs, each of which is memorable, and the connecting passages between the riffs are nicely executed, too. It does have a dull (but brief) bridge that briefly sounds like it's going to break into "Brickhouse" and instead just sways in place for about fifteen seconds, apparently as an excuse to work in silly siren and car skidding noises. Both of the main riffs are so simple that they wear out easily, and after a few plays I'm ready to let this one go. Written by Barry de Vorzon, who I had only previously known as the cowriter of "The Young and the Restless" (aka "Nadia's Theme"), but was also the lead singer for the Tamerlanes on their 1963 hit "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight."
Ringo Starr, You're Sixteen
Nice kazoo break. An inoffensive song, though it could probably get Ringo thrown off Livejournal and arrested in several states these days. It's a fine old tune, fun to sing, but it's already come up four or five times in the shuffle, and that's enough. Joe Regan plays this in piano bars, and it disturbs Velma that I always want to rhyme "You're my baby, you're my pet" with "You're Disco Tex and the Sexolettes." I just think "Disco Tex and the Sexolettes" is funny.
Neil Sedaka, Breakin' Up Is Hard to Do
Nothing against Sedaka, but the attempt to transform this bouncy pop song into a sensitive ballad doesn't work for me, mostly because it calls too much attention to the Brill Building lyric quality, a frothy, teenage style that was fine for the material but isn't weighty enough for this kind of treatment. It's true that most modern ballad lyrics aren't any better, but in this case it's hard not to think of the original while the remake is playing.
Glen Campbell, It's Only Make Believe
Campbell, a good songwriter, does a faithful cover of an old Conway Twitty chestnut. Campbell proves himself a serviceable singer, but does nothing with the song to show that it needed a new interpretation. Poor line: "No one will ever know / Just how much I love you so." It's just there for a rhyme, but "so" is "how much I love you". Look, I'm a copy editor, okay?
Stylistics, Betcha By Golly Wow
The title suggests a Little Richard-style raveup, but it's a pretty Philadelphia soul ballad (by Thom Bell and Linda Creed). The title, at the beginning of the chorus, stands out as a prime piece of silliness, and it's hard for me to believe that it didn't make people laugh in 1972. The extra beats between lines in the chorus are a nice touch in an otherwise ordinary song, even though one of those pauses is after the title line and draws additional attention to it.
Kris Kristofferson, Why Me
I already hold "Me and Bobby McGee" against Kristofferson, which is probably not fair since it's Janis Joplin I can't stand. But I'd never heard this song that I can remember, it was a huge hit in 1973, and it's awful. (And I'm sorry to discover that it's been covered by the great Kelly Hogan.) It begins "Why me, Lord?", and it immediately becomes clear that it's a pious inversion of the usual self-pity, Kristofferson instead asking God why Kristofferson should have it so good. It's a good twist of a stock phrase, the kind that's at the heart of many great songs. And some awful ones. As an attitude toward God, it still has the disadvantage of cheekily directing questions at the Lord, albeit in the service of humility; one can't escape the sense that the petitioner is pleased with himself beneath the humility, not just for the cleverness of his approach but for being humble. Lord, witness my humility! And the execution, unfortunately, isn't as clever as the idea. "Tell me Lord, What did I ever do that was worth loving you" -- I imagine the Lord bridling here -- "for the kindness you've shown?" Now, this question makes no sense: "that was worth loving you for" is not any kind of substitute for "to deserve". And "kindness" is a paltry word -- a human word -- to apply to the gifts of God. O Lord, how kind you are! "So help me Jesus, my soul's in your hands" is also funny in a way Kristofferson doesn't intend. "If you think there's a way I can try to repay all I've taken from you". . . Do I need to go on? But what about the music! you ask. Don't worry, you aren't missing anything.
Donny Osmond, The Twelfth of Never
There were more Osmond hits than most people remember, inasmuch as only a couple of them have been played since the first year they came out. This was originally a Johnny Mathis hit, and he can sell just about any piece of tripe; Donny Osmond, without his brothers, just sounds nasal. Not content with building a song on an unreconstructed cliche, songwriters Livingston and Webster found a way to make it stupider; the song ends with one of the great thudding anticlimaxes of pop music history: "Until the twelfth of never, and that's a long, long time." So pleased was everyone with this line, they had Osmond repeat "that's a long, long time", drawing it out, with a little catch in his voice on the first "long". I think people need to hear this: 47 seconds of "The Twelfth of Never"
Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Swearin' to God
Frankie Valli was pretty good at adapting to the musical landscape (Bob Crewe, producer and frequent songwriter for Valli throughout his career, probably deserves some credit for that), and I admire his success, but this piece of funk lite makes me cringe. It's like Curtis Mayfield processed by Vegas. Valli doesn't pull out the falsetto on this one, as he would the next year on the huge hits that briefly made the Four Seasons big again, and the Seasons can barely be detected as backing vocalists on this one.
There's a twelve-inch extended remix. Even the album version is over ten minutes long. That's enough of that.
Murray Head with the Trinidad Singers, Superstar
Jesus Christ! I grew up liberal Catholic and am a fan of the musical; it's easy to mock, but was radical for the time, enough so that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice couldn't get it staged until they recorded the album and it was a hit. ALW was only 21, and at the time his promise must have seemed immense. In retrospect, Rice's lyrics are sometimes clever, occasionally moving, and often dreadful. Doing elevated material in a colloquial voice requires a precise ear, but Rice often has no sense of the moments when deploying modern idiom is a bellyflop into bathos. There's nothing in this song as cringeworthy as "I couldn't cope, just couldn't cope" in "I Don't Know How to Love Him", but there are blurts like "Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication" and "Did you know your Messy death would be a record-breaker" and, well, the whole thing, really. "Could Mahomet move a mountain or was that just P.R.?" is schoolboy writing. "P.R.", we are hip, straightforward, irreverent, okay we get it. "What have you sacrificed?" is just there for the rhyme: the song is written from after Christ's death, implying a modern point of view at several points, and I think we all know what Christ sacrificed. The ear for phrasing in a melodic line is bad, too; for example, "You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned", in which "had" is given two syllables for no good reason, like writing a parody that doesn't scan.
For all that, it's catchy, and there are many better songs on the album. The power of the whole of it obviously worked well at the time.
Barry Manilow, Mandy
It's easy to forgive Manilow for "Mandy" at this point, since he famously didn't want to record it. Still: blaaaargh. I suppose wailing "and nothing is rhyming" and rhyming it with "climbing" is supposed to be a joke? Anyway, the seeds of Manilow's skill at bombastic arrangement, rivaled in modern pop music only by Jim Steinman, are evident here, as "Mandy" builds relentlessly to a huge cheesy climax. (It was a British hit a few years earlier, under its original name of "Brandy", for a songwriter named Scott English, and apparently it was originally a bubblegum pop song.)
Our (my sister's and my) sixth grade singing teacher, Mr Sheffield, mostly taught us popular songs from the pre-rock era -- what he liked, presumably -- and to this day I can sing "Hey Look Me Over" and "K-K-K-Katy" and "Goodnight Irene" and hear Mr Sheffield's ukulele -- I am not kidding -- accompaniment. Of course his students hated singing this stuff. As some kind of cruel sop to the students, he allowed each outgoing song to choose one song to be sung by the next year's class. The bastards in the year before us chose "Mandy".
I haven't been updating this often enough, so I'm going to try shorter, more frequent entries.
Charlie Rich, Behind Closed Doors
Namechecked by Rob in High Fidelity, though he implies it's about not talking about what goes on behind closed doors, while in fact the song is all about what happens behind closed doors: "She lets her hair hang down, and she makes me glad I'm a man," he allows, telling about as much about what goes on behind closed doors as a country song in 1973 can; he then inexplicably adds "No one knows what goes on behind closed doors." Dude, you just told us! And he praises her for her non-demonstrativeness in public, too, so we can infer that when she lets her hair down she sure makes up for it. Does your prim and proper lady know you're singing about her making you glad you're a man, Charlie? Anyway, nice tune.
New Seekers, I'd Like To Teach the World To Sing
Good melody, sweet harmonies, but impossible to separate in my head from the commercial that spawned it; I hear "it's the real thing, Coke is" whether I want to or not. So off the song goes after one play. Allmusic's writers can't agree whether the New Seekers recorded the original commercial or whether it was the Hillside Singers; the entry for the Hillside Singers makes a more convincing case, though.
Chairmen of the Board, Give Me Just a Little More Time
Clearly imitative of the Motown songwriting style. The lead singer sounds like his throat is being squeezed.
Joe Cocker, The Letter
To begin with, I can't fucking stand Joe Cocker and his vocal histrionics, so this never stood a chance with me. But I also love "The Letter", and Cocker messes with its perfect arrangement as well, so this rose straight to the top of my list of songs Joe Cocker pissed on the worst, to be displaced just a couple nights ago by hearing him vomit up "I Think It's Going To Rain Today", which was a good signal for us to leave the bar.
Vicki Sue Robinson, Turn the Beat Around
One of the many disco songs about disco music. The melody's more memorable than most; it's stuck in my head all these years. I never would have thought it was a candidate for a hit cover, though. Maybe Gloria Estefan liked the latin percussion in the original? Estefan's cover is so faithful I can't hear why it was worth doing.
Mac Davis, One Hell of a Woman
Opens exactly like "Satisfaction" -- and probably a thousand other songs. It's got a couple nice changes in the chorus. "She's one hell of a woman, young and strong and tan...." Well, it was the 1970s. Davis is probably best known for "Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me" and acting in North Dallas Forty, but he was a good songwriter for other people; he wrote "A Little Less Conversation" and "In the Ghetto" -- did you know the Cranberries covered "In the Ghetto"? I think I'd rather hear Sammy Davis Jr's version -- and "Something's Burnin'" and "I Believe in Music" and "Watching Scott Grow". He definitely had the cheesy touch. (Mind you, I am not putting down "A Little Less Conversation".)
Jud Strunk, Daisy a Day
I don't remember hearing this before. Strunk was a Laugh-In regular, and died in a plane crash in 1977. "Daisy a Day" is one of those toothless, cheerful novelty songs that had their last hurrah in the mid-70s. I let it come up a second time, out of duty.
Paul McCartney & Wings, Helen Wheels
The most forgettable song on Band on the Run.
Charley Pride, Kiss an Angel Goodbye
Nice sentiment, dull song. "And the answer is in this song that I always sing" is the sound of a songwriter yawning (Ben Peters -- best known for writing "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" -- who wrote twelve number one country hits and won a Grammy for this one).
Kenny Rogers, The Gambler
It would be a lot more helpful if you would tell me when I ought to hold 'em and when I ought to fold 'em, you addlepated old-timer.
Apollo 100, Joy
I had forgotten this thing existed. "A Fifth of Beethoven" I can enjoy for its exuberant corniness and the chutzpah of inserting an original disco bridge into the tune; "Joy" is just straightforwardly, cheesily awful. I believe it's a genuine one-hit wonder (as opposed to a VH-1 one-hit wonder).
Mary MacGregor, Torn Between Two Lovers
A polyamorous lament. Jason Hare and his readers were astonished at the gall of the narrator in asking her lover to stay even though she acknowledged she was "breaking all the rules". I think it's a welcome twist to the usual predictable pop-song narrative, but I still don't want to hear the song anymore. Cowritten by Peter Yarrow, though not presumably about Paul and Mary.
Diana Ross, Ain't No Mountain High Enough
Ashford and Simpson were great melodicists but uninspired lyricists, and the melodramatic spoken vocals here don't do the lyrics any favors. Historically overshadowed by the Gaye/Terrell original, though Ross's was a much bigger hit.
Elvis Presley, The Wonder of You
I have a weakness for songs in 6/8, and the increasingly emphatic choral vocals during the guitar break and at the climax are good for a couple laughs. According to Wikipedia, "The song has been adopted by English Football team Port Vale F.C. who run out to the song at the start of their home matches. The song is also sung by the club's fans throughout their matches." O-kay.
Donna Fargo, Funny Face
Near the top of the list of forbidden rhymes: "leave me" and "believe me". Fargo's near-lisping of her s's is an annoying affectation. The verses are so perfunctory that they're clearly only there as a skeleton upon which to hang the long, luxurious chorus.. You don't hear much about Donna Fargo today -- she was born Yvonne Vaughn, should've kept the name -- but she was a major country star in the 70s, even had her own TV show for a season, and wrote most of her own hits, including this one.
Alice Cooper, You and Me
Cooper's descent into schmaltz was surprisingly successful for a while; this is one of at least three adult contemporary hits he had after making his mark as a schlock-rocker. None of them are awful musically, though one expects this kind of thing more from Kenny Nolan. Cooper's a pretty bad sensitive singer, though, and he trips over his cliches into bathos with every other line: "I wanna take you to heaven; that would make my day complete" is the silliest by a hair. The vocal melodic jump into the chorus is reasonably pretty, and the details of the piano and the lead guitar are nice in several places. The song fades on the verse, which is also nice. The break for the strings, though, is nauseating.
Frankie Valli, My Eyes Adored You
The most irritating thing for me about 1970s pop is the omnipresent strings. Strings can be great, but they rarely were in the 1970s. Most of it is by-the-numbers coloring, filling up space for the purpose of filling up space. This song is an example; it's a nice melody, worthy of Frankie Valli, and it's a pretty good longing song. But the strings, and the occasional harp swooshes, are completely unnecessary, contributing nothing good that isn't there already. Also, jeez, those cliche key changes at the end, another 1970s overused tool.
B.B. King, The Thrill Is Gone
I don't hate it, but I don't need to hear it again.
Andy Gibb, (Our Love) Don't Throw It All Away
Typical expert Brothers Gibb popcraft, more subtle in its musical layering and backing vocals than a lot of their stuff in the late 1970s. It's just not one of their most arresting songs. The chorus is oddly limp.
Rod Stewart, Do Ya Think I'm Sexy
Making it through this once was deadly rough.
Mark Lindsay, Arizona
Gets ahold of a good vocal hook and works it to death (and does it no great service with the horns in the first place). Not fond of Mark Lindsay's Neil Diamond approach to phrasing, which is self-indulgent and more melodramatic than dramatic. Not that the words are any more charming:
Arizona, take off your rainbow shades
Arizona, have another look at the world, my, my
Arizona, cut off your Indian braids
Arizona, hey won't you go my way?
Mmm, Strip off your pride
You're acting like a teeny-bopper run away child
And scrape off the paint from the face of a little town saint
Arizona, take off your hobo shoes
Arizona, hey won't you go my way?
And after all that berating -- coming after "and all you can do is laugh at her", mind you -- he gives us this:
Follow me up to San Francisco
I will be guide, your way
I'll be the Count of Monte Cristo
You'll be the Countess May
Which has a kind of incoherent chutzpah. At least he's made it clear that condescension will be the cornerstone of the relationship.
The Four Tops, "Still Water (Love)"
Generic soft r&b with a weak hook built on a stock phrase with no twist. I don't believe this would have been a hit if it weren't sung by the Four Tops.
Clarence Carter, "Patches"
I don't think I have anything new to see about this bag of bathos. Except how the (very occasionally observed) demands of scansion turn "his deathbed" into "his dying bed".
John Denver, "I'm Sorry"
Not a bad song, but not really a single -- it was the flip side to "Calypso" -- and not a song that gains much being heard outside the context of other John Denver songs.
Joan Baez, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
Again, better people than me long ago gave this song everything it deserved. I love the original, and the amusement value of Baez's misheard lyrics doesn't do much to compensate for her soulless reading.
Alice Cooper, "How You Gonna See Me Now"
The mature Alice Cooper, in this case ballading like Peter Frampton. It does introduce a key change between the first verse and the chorus, which I guess is kind of interesting. From Cooper's album about his recovery from alcoholism, a subject so personal it required assistance from Bernie Taupin to write most of the songs (including this one).
Lobo, "Don't Expect Me To Be Your Friend"
It's hard to be a mellow musician with something bitter to say. "I love you too much to ever start liking you / So let's just let the story kinda end." Ooooh, snap.
Elvis Presley, "Mama Liked the Roses"
This would fit easily on a song-poem anthology.
Robert John, "Lion Sleeps Tonight"
I can't hear any reason why I'd listen to this instead of the Tokens.
Bob Welch, "Ebony Eyes"
I actually find this song weirdly interesting, but got sick of it because it was inexplicably part of the mix of songs we heard on the overnight crew for two years. Like Steve Miller, Bob Welch sounds awkward to me, his songs sounding amateurish and sometimes plodding yet still somehow commanding attention. The hook of "Ebony Eyes" seems to me to be the brief guitar riff and synth sting that come between the verses. The verses themselves have a lifeless rhythm and stiff melody, and the chorus is just this weird melodic jump up to a repeated exclamation of "Ebony Eyes". It's . . . different.
The Partridge Family, "Doesn't Somebody Want To Be Wanted"
I could believe this was cut from a Badfinger album. It's not awful, not good. Except for the spoken interlude: that's awful.
The Jimmy Castor Bunch, "Troglodyte"
Yes, it's supposed to be stupid. It sure is stupid. Even when it isn't trying to be stupid ("let's go back into time"). The only part of it that interests me is that the music is the same groove all the way through -- which makes it, along with the novelty lyrics and delivery, a proto-King Missile song.
Debby Boone, "You Light Up My Life"
The first song to get cut after more than one play. I wanted to give it a fair chance, but damn it, it came back around again fast. Boone was as good a singer as many empty balladeers who have come since, but her career began and ended here.
Jaggerz, "The Rapper"
Almost has the groove of a Creedence song, but doesn't have the natural feel. I don't hate it, but don't need to hear it again.
Bob Seger, "We've Got Tonight"
Okay, this I hate. Seger is like the anti-Michael McDonald for me. There are a couple songs of his that will make it past one play, but this isn't one.
Olivia Newton-John, "If Not for You"
I have some tolerance for Newton-John, but this is a limp cover of a fine song.
Elton John, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
I love the Beatles, but I've never loved this song -- especially the thump, thump, thump, way it goes into its mediocre chorus -- and I like Elton John, but this is far from one of his better arrangements or performances.
Barbra Streisand, "My Heart Belongs to Me"
Diana Ross, "The Boss"
I feel like defending disco this week, but this isn't where I'm going to begin.
Kenny Nolan, "Love's Grown Deep"
It's hard not to want to punch the singer right at the beginning after he says "I love you. So much" before launching into the first verse. Nothing in the lyrics or arrangement or vocal redeems it at all, nor does the chorus rhyme of "Love's grown deep, deep into the heart of me / you've become a part of me", nor the ah-ah-ah! coda. It does have one of those dramatic bum, bum, bum-bum-bum drum fills leading into the chorus that always crack me up in mellow songs, like the drummer's been barely holding back his passion and can now let it out. I need to collect those fills. Are there names for different drum fills?
The Righteous Brothers, "Rock and Roll Heaven"
I don't remember this song, and I'm glad. This is another song that would find a friendly home on a song-poem compilation, for its shameless capitalizing on the sentiment people hold for dead musicians, and the ignorance and fatuousness with which it does so. The lyrics are offhand, like they were scribbled in half an hour after the songwriter -- the wretched Alan O'Day, in combination with someone named Johnny Stevenson -- came up with the idea, and they show no evidence of more than passing familiarity with the musicians being "honored", let alone any real feeling:
Jimi gave us rainbows
And Janis took a piece of our hearts
And Otis brought us all to the dock of a bay
Sing a song to light my fire
Remember Jim that way
They also apparently believe that Bobby Darin "brought us" Mack the Knife. But most hilarious by a fair bit is this:
Remember bad bad Leroy Brown
Hey Jimmy touched us with that song
Yeah, and we were all deeply moved by "You Don't Mess Around With Jim".
The first batch of songs to fall:
1. "Star Wars/Cantina Band" by Meco
I'd rather listen to this than the John Williams theme, but I'd rather not listen to either one.
2. "You Take My Breath Away" by Rex Smith
A Heartthrob Hit. No reason to listen to this generic piece of wimpery again.
3. "I Found That Girl" by the Jackson 5
I think it's a measure of the Jackson 5's huge popularity that this b-side got radio play, because there's nothing distinctive about it (and I love their best songs).
4. "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett
Even by the degraded standards of popular novelty songs, this song is too awful to waste words on.
5. "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)" by Tony Orlando & Dawn
Fails even to rise to the catchy level of their best schlock.
6. "Dark Lady" by Cher
I'm surprised this doesn't get more consideration in lists of the worst pop songs of all time. It has ludicrous fake gypsy music, but is about a fortune teller in New Orleans. It has a cliched key change. It has an incredibly dumb melodramatic story, delivered with a poor simulacrum of earnestness by Cher. It has a revenge gundown. It has astonishingly bad lyrics. Here is a sampling, all grammar, bathos, triteness, and pointless wordspinning per the original:
On the backseat were scratches from/
The marks of men her fortune she had won
I followed her to some darkened room/
She took my money, she said "I'll be with you soon"
Dark Lady played back magic till the clock struck on the twelve/
She told me more about me than I knew myself
Then she turned up a two-eyed jack/
My eyes saw red but the card still stayed black
Then I remembered her strange perfume/
And how I smelled it was in my own room!
The next thing I knew they were dead on the floor/
Dark Lady would never turn a card up anymore
That's some of the worst writing in the history of pop music. It's not just bad, it's semi-literate. There is some amusement value to the song -- the way Cher sings "strange" and "perfume" and "caught her", for instance -- but not enough to make me want to sit through it again.
A friend has given me discs including the Billboard Top 100 for every year since they began keeping the annual chart (it was top 30 for the first few years), from 1946 through 2004. Needless to say, this is a glorious present. Needless to say, I am obsessing over it. And I am embarking upon another silly Project:
I have loaded my mp3 with every song on the 1970s disc* (a bit over a thousand, since in some cases they included both sides of a single). I have set it on shuffle -- it's always on shuffle, actually -- and I'm playing Survival: as I get sick of songs, they come off the player. Every song must be listened to all the way through at least once. If it survives, the next time it comes around it must be listened to all the way through again. If that makes me wince, I know it's time to delete the song. I'm genuinely curious what ends up surviving to my final hundred, fifty, ten.
So far, through twelve songs, I'm finding that this has me listening closely to songs I've never paid much attention to, from ones I've always enjoyed ("For the Love of Money", "Cold as Ice") to ones I've always hated ("Tonight's the Night", "Spill the Wine"). In fact, I've found a good deal to admire in the ones I hated -- in the case of the two I just named, I think the hatred is so visceral that I can't articulate it, and is probably fundamentally not about music. I can see myself changing my mind about a lot of songs this way. And that's good -- I'd always rather be open minded and able to appreciate whatever is there to appreciate -- but it may make this project end up taking a lot longer than I had planned. At any rate, I'm on the thirteenth song now ("Our Love" by Natalie Cole) and I haven't ejected a song yet.
[addendum: song 14 -- "Star Wars Theme / Cantina Band" by Meco -- is the first one-and-done. Now that's a stinky cheese.]
*n.b.: I love 1970s pop and rock music. If you think the 1970s suck, I don't care. Especially if you think the 1960s were far, far superior.