Ten new songs made their debut in Billboard's Hot 100 this week. Four would go on to reach the Top 40 but only one would get into the Top 10. After the success of the film Star Wars (still running in many theaters as 1978 began), science fiction had become mainstream. To mirror that, three of the songs in this week's review have "outer space" imagery. Another big trend as 1978 was getting underway would be disco, which had just become huge with the release of Saturday Night Fever. While no songs from that movie were among the debuts, several have a dancefloor beat to capitalize on the sound.
This issue of Billboard magazine is available online. Read the issue at Google Books. The full Hot 100 chart can be found on page 104. For those who like to read the articles, the scan of page 3 has a tear-out subscription insert blocking much of the page that prevents reading some of the industry news.
Heatwave - "Always And Forever"
(Debuted #78, Peaked #18, 20 weeks on chart)
While not their biggest-charting pop hit ("Boogie Nights" was a #2 hit and "The Groove Line" would reach #7), this may be Heatwave's best-remembered because it's been played often on adult contemporary radio and in wedding receptions for more than 30 years. A romantic ballad expressing true devotion, it's become a wedding-day standard for its timeless quality. Released at the height of disco, it proved that people still sometimes liked to dance slow.
The story of Heatwave begins with two brothers who were stationed in West Germany with the U.S. Army. Johnnie and Keith Wilder sang at local bars and venues with various German bands and remained there once they were discharged from the service. Eventually they moved to London to collaborate with Rod Temperton and built a multiracial, multinational band. Heatwave's first single ("Boogie Nights") was a huge smash in several countries and they were able to follow up that success with more hits. However, tragedy struck the group. Singer Johnnie Wilder was paralyzed in a car accident in Dayton, Ohio and bassist Mario Mantese was stabbed by an unknown assailant in London. Other members quit, including Temperton. By 1979, the band was very different and the hits dried up.
Temperton would go on to write many hit songs afterwards, especially Michael Jackson ("Rock With You," "Off the Wall," "Thriller"). Among his other hit compositions were George Benson's "Give Me the Night," "Stomp!" by The Brothers Johnson and a couple of James Ingram duets ("Baby Come to Me" and "Yah Mo B There").
Al Green - "Belle"
(Debuted #98, Peaked #83, 5 weeks on chart)
Al Green had an exceptional run of Hot 100 singles during the 1970s and this would be his final hit of the decade. It was the lead song from The Belle Album, which marked some major changes for the star. It was his first album away from producer Willie Mitchell* and the Hi Records Rhythm Section, which shaped many of his big hits. It also marked the end of his R&B era; Green had a religious awakening and the album was his last secular LP before he began a new phase of his career as a gospel performer. Unfortunately, "Belle" didn't pack quite the punch of many earlier songs and wasn't around long.
Without the horns that flavored nearly all of Green's familiar hits, "Belle" sounds like a decent R&B song but not one that's distinctively Al Green. Instead, there is a synthesizer, an electric piano and some sparse guitar strumming. There is some indication of Green's newfound religious direction in the lyrics "Belle, it's you I want but Him that I need." Since religious fervor wasn't exactly in vogue during the hedonistic disco era, fans weren't as likely to listen as they might have been earlier in the decade when Jesus Christ Superstar was a hit, The Staples Singers were scoring hits and "Spirit in the Sky" extolled the virtues of having "a friend in Jesus."
*- Willie Mitchell passed away this week from cardiac arrest at the age of 81. May he rest in peace.
The Pockets - "Come Go With Me"
(Debuted #94, Peaked #84, 9 weeks on chart)
The Pockets were a group from Baltimore that was under the wing of Earth, Wind & Fire member Verdine White (brother of EW&F frontman Maurice White). "Come Go With Me" was an uptempo number with forward-looking lyrics and a bright outlook that wouldn't have been out of place on an EW&F LP from that era, but that's not saying it would have been a standout track. However, the record-buying public didn't really see the need for another Earth, Wind & Fire when that group was still cutting their own albums. After two more Pockets LPs and no more hit singles, the group called it quits after 1979.
Heart - "Crazy On You"
(Debuted #82, Peaked #62, 6 weeks on chart)
This was a return to the charts for a song that reached #35 in 1976. After the success of that year's LP Dreamboat Annie, a dispute between the group and its record company (Mushroom) caused them to leave for Portrait records in 1977. By 1978, Mushroom Records was trying to get as much money out of Heart as possible so they re-released "Crazy on You" as a single in advance of the LP Magazine that was at the heart -- pun intended -- of the dispute with the company. It didn't do as well the second time around, missing the Top 40 but it didn't stop the song from remaining one of the group's best-known tunes.
Beginning as an acoustic guitar solo, a blistering guitar riff takes the song to Ann Wilson's lyrics. Beginning with little more than a whisper, she builds to a crescendo where her delivery of the chorus near the end of the song is nearly maddening. All the while, the music fuels the fire. It was an interesting song in its day, as female singers generally weren't as hard-edged. There were exceptions to the rule (like Fancy or Patti Smith), but by early 1978 Janis Joplin was dead, The Runaways couldn't get a break and punk bands hadn't yet gained a toehold on American radio. The 1980s would see more female acts that weren't afraid to crank up the volume (Pat Benatar, The Go-Go's, ex-Runaway Joan Jett, among others) so Heart was a trailblazer in that respect.
War - "Galaxy"
(Debuted #79, Peaked #39, 9 weeks on chart)
War was a very underrated 1970s band. Despite their influence on later artists from several different genres, the band gets little recognition beyond their fan base. To make it worse, there are some music fans out there who assume they were little more than Eric Burdon's backup group on "Spill the Wine." However, the L.A.-based group was a blend of many different sounds -- rock, jazz fusion, funk, reggae, Latin and R&B -- that gelled when they added two white Europeans (Burdon and Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar). Burdon left after two LPs but the band was more than up to the task of continuing without him.
"Galaxy" was War's final Top 40 hit of the 1970s. With a spacey sound, there are some added sound effects that sound like they came from the Cylons in the old Battlestar Galactica TV show (which hadn't yet debuted when the LP was recorded). Although given a somewhat danceable beat for disco play, dance music wasn't really War's forte. Their laid-back California beat and socially-aware lyrics weren't a good fit with the superficial disco scene and their music soon fell out of favor on Top 40 radio. Even though the records stopped coming out, the group has soldiered on through the years and still tours regularly (even though only one original member is left in the lineup).
Eric Clapton - "Lay Down Sally"
(Debuted #75, Peaked #3, 21 weeks on chart)
Many fans know that "Lay Down Sally" was a big pop hit for Eric Clapton. But few know it was a Top 40 country song, peaking at #26 on that chart as well. The song is performed with a shuffle and is much more of a country-style song than may of Clapton's fans may realize. Clapton wrote the song with two members of his backing band: guitarist and Southern native George Terry, and singer Marcy Levy (later known as Marcella Detroit), whose voice is clearly heard behind Clapton's. Rather than being a country fan, Clapton has acknowledged the influence in writing "Lay Down Sally" to J.J. Cale, an Oklahoma native who contributed another Clapton staple (and "Lay Down Sally" B-side), "Cocaine" as well as his 1970 hit "After Midnight."
The lyrics are straightforward ("stay with me tonight, lay here and talk") but the music is what propels the song. The shuffle beat sounds like a locomotive chugging down the tracks, Clapton's guitar solo is understated but terrific and the band is in fine form. While it's little surprise that "Lay Down Sally" wasn't a bigger country hit, it's worth noting that in 1978 there were many country artists -- Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, Dolly Parton -- having crossover success and artists like Linda Ronstadt who courted both audiences, there were also pop and rock artists (Clapton, The Carpenters and Neil Diamond, among others) earning modest success on the country charts as well.
George Duke - "Reach For It"
(Debuted #87, Peaked #54, 6 weeks on chart)
This song was the only Hot 100 single George Duke would get, but that doesn't begin to show his wide-reaching influences. Duke had been a collaborator with Jean-Luc Ponty, Frank Zappa and Billy Cobham. From his beginnings as a jazz keyboardist, Duke explored R&B, funk and Latin rhythms as he began recording his 1977 Reach For it LP. Although the LP was more an R&B groove than jazz fusion, it wasn't exactly a "sell-out" like critics were tagging George Benson with at the time. The song "Reach for it" sounds a lot like something from Parliament from its instrumental interplay and female vocalization or The Gap Band (and their song "Oops" in particular) in its male lead vocal.
Prism - "Take Me To The Kaptin"
(Debuted #90, Peaked #59, 7 weeks on chart)
Here's a song that is nearly four minutes of pure power pop. It has many of the requisite ingredients: the guitar attack, the tight production, the disposable lyrics, even a cowbell. While not memorable, it isn't a bad song and sounds similar to some harder-edged but still inoffensive corporate rock hits from the early 1980s. Perhaps the similarity has a little to do with the fact that the song's producer was the same person who crafted many of those 80s arena rock anthems.
The five-member Vancouver-based Prism was the first group produced by Bruce Fairbairn, who would go on to become tremendously sought-after by bands in the 1980s and '90s for his hard-edged style. Fairbairn produced multiplatinum LPs (and later CD releases) for Loverboy, Bon Jovi, AC/DC and Aerosmith.While critics often considered Fairbairn's production to be antiseptic and sterile, artists usually paid attention to the fact that they often had their best-selling LPs under his direction.
David Castle - "The Loneliest Man On The Moon"
(Debuted #89, Peaked #89, 2 weeks on chart)
This was one of the shortest-lived chart hits for all of 1978: it debuted at #89, held the same position a week later and then disappeared. The song's quick death on the charts also marked the end of Castle's short career as a prospective hitmaker. While songs that took place in space like David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and Elton John's "Rocket Man" were big in the early 1970s, the fact that the Apollo program was still going on at the time may have helped them. Unfortunately, by 1978 astronauts weren't going to the moon anymore and the public wasn't buying a lot of records that took place beyond the stratosphere. Of course, any mention of the moon in the song is purely metaphorical; the lyrics mention waiting for a lover to return and a feeling of loneliness.
David Castle was a staff writer for United Artists during the mid-1970s and released his debut LP Castle in the Sky in 1977. Although he hailed from Texas, he recorded his album at the famed Abbey Road studios in London and had some help in the background from the London Symphony Orchestra (who provide much of the "spacey" music in this song).
Meco - "Theme From Close Encounters"
(Debuted #61, Peaked #25, 10 weeks on chart)
For the second time in less than a year, Meco did a discofied version of a movie theme composed by John Williams. The first time out, Meco's version of the Star Wars theme (with "Cantina Band" inserted into it) went to #1 while Williams settled for a #10 peak with his original. Fans of Star Wars -- so often easily agitated in regards to "authenticity" -- weren't overly thrilled by the result, but disco was hot enough in 1977 to vault Meco's version into the #1 spot even if it was seen as a novelty. For Close Encounters of the Third Kind however, it was Williams who won the race, peaking at #13 with his film score as Meco stalled at #25.
Meco was the stage name of Domenico Monardo, an Italian-American born in Pennsylvania. While in high school, he jammed along with friends Chuck Mangione and jazz musician Ron Carter. After being in a service band during his Army hitch, he became a studio musician and arranger. Among his contributions: the horn section on Tommy James & the Shondells' "Crystal Blue Persuasion" and Neil Diamond's series of Coca-Cola commercials. As a producer, he handled Gloria Gaynor's "Never Can Say Goodbye" and Carol Douglas's "Doctors Orders." After going platinum with his first LP Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, he decided to see if lightning struck twice with Encounters of Every Kind. It didn't sell as many copies, but Meco continued with movie-themed singles, including selections from The Wizard of Oz, Superman, The Black Hole, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.