Saturday, August 21, 2010

This Week's Review -- August 26, 1978

There was some serious hit potential among the songs debuting on Billboard's Hot 100 chart this week. Of the seven new songs appearing on the chart, five would go on to reach the Top 40. However, none would make the Top 10.Among the songs were a legendary British rock band that somehow missed the Top 10 all through the 1970s, a country crossover hit, a song from a duo who were tweaking their sound, an odd followup to "I Go Crazy" and a Broadway tune reworked for the discos. In short, the seven songs represent a decent sampling of the different music styles of 1978 but doesn't cut really deep.

Google Books has a large archive of past Billboard magazines, including the August 28, 1978 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 108. An article on page 1 explains all the reasons given by experts that there were already more platinum singles (given for two million sales) at that point in 1978 than there were for all of '76 and '77 combined. Page 46 reports a panel discussion by five radio executives at a recent radio programmers' forum sponsored by the magazine about how AM stations can survive and thrive as FM was growing fast. This was an interesting topic since the AM vs. FM fight was still brewing at the time. Among the suggestions: remember AM radios strengths, focus on AM's existing audience rather than trying to convert FM listeners and to avoid focusing on the development of AM stereo until the technology was ready. These were good suggestions; however, as it turned out, Top 40 AM radio at the time was dying and would be largely dead as the 1980s rolled on.

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The Who - "Who Are You" Who

(Debuted #70, Peaked #14, 15 Weeks on chart)



Long before it was a TV theme song, "Who Are You" was a song by The Who. The song would be their second-highest charting single of the 1970s ("See Me, Feel Me" reached #12 in 1970). It may seem odd today, given The Who's appeal and popularity, that despite Tommy, Quadrophenia and Who's Next, as well as three songs that would go on to become theme shows for CSI shows, the band never enjoyed a Top 10 single during the 1970s. However, The Who's fan base was more of an LP-buying crowd, which had little impact on singles sales or Top 40 radio.

The song's lyrics detailed a day in the life of Pete Townsend. After dealing with music industry types (the "Tin Pan" reference) for eleven hours, he went to a bar and got really drunk. After passing out "in a Soho doorway," he's roused by a policeman who tells him he needs to get walking unless he wants to sober up in a local cell. He finds his way to "the tube" (London's subway system) and sits back down there. Legend has it that the song was written as a result of an encounter between The Who and The Sex Pistols, but that really doesn't seem to show up in the song's words.

The song is also notorious for using an obscenity ("who the f--- are you?") in the chorus. The single version substituted the less offensive "hell," but many American AOR stations use the LP version. Sometimes the word is edited; sometimes the word finds it way onto the airwaves.

"Who Are You" is also remembered as one of the last songs to feature Keith Moon's drumming before his untimely death.


Steely Dan - "Josie"  Josie

(Debuted #77, Peaked #26, 11 Weeks on chart)



No sooner do I mention that The Who missed the Top 10 throughout the 1970s than we come to a cut from Steely Dan's best-regarded LP Aja. Despite spending a very long time on the charts and being one of the more acclaimed 1970s albums, it didn't hit #1 on the Billboard album charts and none of its three singles broke the pop Top 10.

The final song on the Aja LP and the last of three singles from that album was "Josie," a rock-based tune that is different from the jazz-derived music found on most of Aja's tracks. Driven by a funky bassline by Chuck Rainey, the song features a guitar solo by Walter Becker (one of the few he performed on the album) and sounds influenced by a Booker T. & the MG's jam. The lyrics, on the other hand, are another product of Fagen & Becker's penchant for sly and twisted humor. The "Josie" in the song is a bad girl coming back to town, whose arrival is certain to bring debauchery. Sounds like it's going to be one hell of a party.


Dolly Parton - "Heartbreaker" Heartbreaker

(Debuted #82, Peaked #37, 10 Weeks on chart)



Dolly Parton's embrace of a more pop-oriented sound with 1977's "Here You Come Again" brought her a lot more fans and sold many more records, but many who'd been fans of hers since she began singing with Porter Wagoner weren't as impressed to see their homegrown country girl cross over. Although Dolly's talent was certainly enough for her to be noticed outside of country music, her "new" sound wasn't given very positive reviews in Nashville. However, critical reviews don't always translate to sales, and her LP Heartbreaker quickly went gold. Its lead single would go on to spend three weeks at #1 on the country charts as well.

Featuring Dolly's angelic voice, "Heartbreaker" is a ballad about dealing with the sting after a charming lover came in, swept her off her feet and then traveled on to his next conquest. Written by Carole Bayer Sager and Dolly's guitar player David Wolfert, the song isn't what you'd expect from a country song. Rather than fiddle or steel guitar, the song features and electric piano as the main instrument, with strings and guitar.


Daryl Hall and John Oates - "It's a Laugh" It's

(Debuted #84, Peaked #20, 14 Weeks on chart)



The era between Hall and Oates's mid 1970s breakthrough and their early 1980s glory days saw some interesting material as they worked to find the right sound to take them to the next level. Rather than sticking to the sound that saw them hit big with "She's Gone," "Sara Smile" and the #1 hit "Rich Girl," the duo kept experimenting, practicing and crafting their work until they got it right. As a result, their late-70s singles weren't as successful.

Their 1978 LP Along the Red Ledge was one of the duo's recordings that helped them get toward their golden era. Rather than the studio musicians they used on their earlier LPs, their road band was used for the songs (a habit they retained through the 1980s). Producer David Foster helped keep the sound "fresh" and introduced rock elements into Hall and Oates's "blue-eyed soul" style. Without gimmick-laden tricks that might date it as a late-1970s project, the LP has aged quite well as a result. The first song on the album was "It's a Laugh," a Hall composition about coping with a breakup. It sounds more like their '80s hits than the '70s singles and features a great saxophone solo by Charles DeChant.


Paul Davis - "Sweet Life" Sweet

(Debuted #85, Peaked #17, 21 Weeks on chart)



I sometimes wonder why Paul Davis wasn't a bigger star than he was. Growing up in Meridian, Mississippi, Davis was raised on rock, country and R&B. His country influence made his 1974 hit "Ride 'em Cowboy" an irresistible story of a rodeo star who can't walk away from the circuit, his 1970 cover of The Jarmels' "A Little Bit of Soap" was a neat tip of the cap to doo-wop for a new decade, and his pained "Oh, oh, oh" after the bridge of "I Go Crazy" showed his R&B influence. A capable songwriter, he would go on to write several #1 country hits in the 1980s after walking away from his pop career when he determined his record company was taking him into territory he wasn't comfortable riding into. Perhaps the fact that he took his own terms when it came to his career has made me respect him more as a man. Even so, that man had some great talent.

"Sweet Life," a song about enjoying the family life, seems like an odd choice as a followup to "I Go Crazy," which was about trying in vain to get over a lost love. It's an interesting counterpoint, to say the least.


Con Funk Shun - "Shake And Dance With Me" Shake

(Debuted #87, Peaked #60, 6 Weeks on chart)



Known primarily as a funk group, Con Funk Shun was actually more rooted in R&B than many may realize. Before forming Con Funk Shun, they had been backing the Memphis- based group The Soul Children. With that background, their sound would be markedly different than that of seminal funk bands like Parliament; their sound was more straightforward and accessible. "Shake and Dance With Me" is an example of a song that has a funky groove, laced with an R&B rhythm and a disco beat.

Despite missing the pop Top 40, "Shake and Dance With Me" would hit #5 on the R&B chart. Despite only one more pop hit (1981's "Too Tight"), the group would chart a string of hits on the R&B chart through 1986 before falling apart from internal issues. The group's sound has continued to appear since then, with many samples of their music appearing in hip hop, rap and R&B songs over the years.


Linda Clifford - "If My Friends Could See Me Now" If

(Debuted #94, Peaked #54, 8 Weeks on chart)



As disco became popular, music producers searched many different avenues to find material to remake into the new form. Tin Pan Alley songs ("Baby Face") and classical music ("A Fifth of Beethoven") offered a wealth of ready-made material, but Broadway show tunes were irresistible, as they were often dramatic enough for the new music and often over-the-top.

"If My Friends Could See Me Now" was originally written for the 1966 Broadway show Sweet Charity. Gwen Verdon performed the song on stage, with Shirley MacLaine singing it in the 1969 film version. One of the extras from that film was Linda Clifford, who would give the song a disco treatment several years later. A 10-minute workout on Clifford's LP that went to #1 on the Billboard disco chart along with "Runaway Love" (reviewed here in July) and "Gypsy Lady," the song would be pared down to for the single release.

The instrumental break midway through the song sounds like it was influenced by the "Cantina Band" portion of Meco's 1977 #1 hit "Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band." That said, it's likely that Clifford's producers and Meco Monardo (also a producer in his own right) had similar tastes when translating scores from stage and screen to something suitable for the disco crowd.

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