Saturday, September 25, 2010

This Week's Review -- September 30, 1978

Out of the nine new singles on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, four would eventually reach the Top 40 and one made the Top 10. Two songs were from the soundtracks of iconic films of the era, yet weren't very successful on the chart. Several singles evoke the 1950s: one was about a car, one evoked an old radio show, and two were remakes of hits from the era. Some were followups to hits, with a song stylistically similar to "Year of the Cat" and another radically different from "You Are the Woman." Among the acts, one was still carrying on after half the band split and another had broken up altogether for a few years before reuniting.

Google Books has an archive of back issues of Billboard magazine. The September 30, 1978 edition is among the treasures there. The full Hot 100 can be found on page 96. An article beginning on page 8 addresses a rumor that Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand would be recording a duet of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" after the popularity of a radio-made version mixing their separate solo versions became popular with listeners. First done by Louisville DJ Gary Guthrie, the mixed version did what would today be known as "Going viral" and soon Columbia records (which had both artists on its roster) were interested in profiting. Page 20 has a review of a new comedy show that had recently debuted (August 18th) on CBS-TV: WKRP in Cincinnati. The writer calls the show a lot more realistic than the film FM and felt radio "people" would enjoy the way it was written (as well as finding situations hitting really close to home for them).

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John Travolta - "Greased Lightnin'" Greased

(Debuted #78, Peaked #47, 8 Weeks on chart)



While well-remembered today, "Greased Lightnin'" was the first John Travolta single that missed the pop Top 40. Though many have forgotten songs like "All Strung Out on You" and "Whenever I'm Away From You" from the period where Travolta was still primarily known as Welcome Back, Kotter's Vinnie Barbarino, it may seem odd to have one of his featured songs from the film Grease as Danny Zuko (that is, without the help of Olivia-Newton John) miss the Top 40 even as so many other RSO singles were hitting big that year. Perhaps lines like "the chicks'll cream," "you know that ain't no s---, I'll be gettin' lots of tit" and "it's a real pussy wagon" made it too raw for radio airplay. Even if it was edited as a single, enough stations at the time were beginning to play album cuts to make the song a programmer's headache.

Listed as a solo Travolta single even though Jeff Conaway (who played Kenicke in the film) can clearly be heard singing some of the lines, "Greased Lightnin'" was an ode that recalled the fascination of the 1950s and '60s over hot rods and muscle cars. However, it made a point that Grease was no remake of a 1950s movie but a 1970s movie that happened to be set in the 50s by injecting things that weren't always explicitly stated in those earlier songs, such as bragging about sexual conquests (whether real or imagined).. It may have been interesting that Travolta was doing the song for the film, as Kenicke (the car's owner) was the one who delivered it in the stage play.


Gene Cotton - "Like A Sunday In Salem (The Amos & Andy Song)" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #83, Peaked #40, 10 Weeks on chart)

Gene Cotton was a folk-influenced singer born in Ohio and based in Tennessee who enjoyed a small handful of chart hits from 1976-'82. Since none of his hits were all that big and are rarely heard today, Cotton has been largely forgotten.

"Like a Sunday in Salem" would be the last Top 40 hit of Cotton's career. The Amos & Andy reference in the title was the repeated line from the chorus about the show playing on the radio, which (along with a "lights out television show") places the song as a memory about some event from the 1950s. After that, there are some lines about a church service (the "Sunday in Salem" of the title) and something about a crucifixion. I haven't figured out whether this was a reference to a backlash against rock 'n' Roll and Elvis ("a man stood singing his song") or whether the metaphors were about the civil rights movement (hence, the Amos & Andy line). Perhaps I'm reading too much into the lines; as a singer inspired by the folk movement, maybe the lines were designed to be obtuse.

Starbuck - "Searching For A Thrill" Searching

(Debuted #84, Peaked #58, 6 Weeks on chart)

Starbuck was an Atlanta-based band best known for the surprise summer 1976 hit "Moonlight Feels Right." As they toured and appeared on TV shows to promote their releases through the rest of the decade, they never managed to get another song like "Moonlight" that resonated with radio listeners and music fans.

"Searching for a Thrill" would be Starbuck's final Hot 100 listing. It was a different kind of tune than casual fans may have expected. Rather than the marimba heard in their two Top 40 hits, the group went with a more rock-based sound this time around and added an entirely different synth vibe. Without getting the hit single that could get the group back into the ears of listeners, they were eventually dropped by their label and broke up in 1980.


Al Stewart - "Time Passages" Time

(Debuted #85, Peaked #7, 18 Weeks on chart)



Once "Year of the Cat" (reviewed here last December) became a smash hit, it was only logical to figure Al Stewart would be back with something similar.

After perfecting his sound, Stewart offered more of the same formula on his next record. The Time Passages LP was the follow-up to Stewart's breakthrough album Year of the Cat, both chronologically and artistically. The title hits of both LPs would be Stewart's biggest hit singles. While the credit (or blame) can partially be explained by producer Alan Parsons's presence, Stewart was under pressure from his record company to try and catch lightning in a bottle a second time. Both songs featured opening piano riffs, extended solos on different instruments, a memorable saxophone solo (provided on both hits by Phil Kenzie) and lyrics filled with metaphors. However, Stewart's co-writer was Peter White, rather than "Year of the Cat" co-writer Peter Wood.

Running over six minutes on Stewart's LP, the single version of the song was pared down to four and a half minutes. However, FM radio stations were really picking up in popularity then due to their increased sound quality by then, so both versions were heard on the air regularly.


Firefall - "Strange Way" Strange

(Debuted #86, Peaked #11, 19 Weeks on chart)



Firefall was a Colorado-based band whose laid-back sound that mixed country-rock with easy listening was well-suited for the 1970s. With members who'd previously played in groups like The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jo Jo Gunne, Spirit and the latter-day Byrds, the group's sound was no accidental fusion or lucky gimmick. Still. the band's success hinged on a constant tour schedule and two very successful radio singles, "You Are the Woman" and "Just Remember I Love You." However, their touring had burned the group out by the time their final 1970s Top 40 hit "Strange Way" was charting.

In some sense, "Strange Way" was a counterpoint to those two brightly-colored hit singles. It was a downbeat song that essentially came across as a kiss-off to a teary-eyed lover. First, the lyrics mention the tears, but rather than reassuring the lover as 1970s mellow-rock legends like James Taylor or Lobo might have done, this time the words ask what she wants from him: "if you just want to cry to somebody, don't cry to me." That's a very different vibe than the one given off in "You Are the Woman." It appeared the honeymoon was over.


Leo Sayer - "Raining In My Heart" Raining

(Debuted #88, Peaked #47, 7 Weeks on chart)



"Raining in My Heart" was written by the husband/wife songwriting team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and originally done by Buddy Holly as the B-side of his 1958 single "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." Englishman Leo Sayer tried his hand at the song as one of his follow-ups to his hit LP Endless Flight and his twin #1 hit singles of 1977.

Trying to have a more serious feel on his self-titled 1978 album, Sayer enlisted producer Richard Perry and utilized many of the same studio pros who were making the big records then. However, the attempt fizzled despite all the best intentions. Sayer's version of "Raining in My Heart" contains both slide guitar that gives a "watery" quality to the song (a not-so-sly nod to the "raining" of the title) and a steel guitar that makes it sound almost like a country song. There may have been some confusion with radio programmers and record buyers due to Sayer's 1977 hit single "Thunder in My Heart" and the song missed the Top 40 altogether. It would be the album's only chart single.



Lindisfarne - "Run For Home" Run

(Debuted #90, Peaked #33, 14 Weeks on chart)



Lindisfarne had enjoyed some hits in their native U.K. and a low-charting 1972 U.S. hit called "Lady Eleanor" but broke up after 1973. In '77, the band members reunited for what was supposed to be a one-time show but stayed together and recorded an LP that featured "Run For Home," their biggest American hit.

Set against slow orchestrated music and the guitar/bass/drum band setup, the lyrics tell about life on the road for a musician, enjoying the tour and enjoying the foolish stuff that gets done, yet realizing the best place to be is home. My guess is that writer and singer Alan Hull came up with the idea while waiting for that last day of the trip to come so he could get back to the real world and rest from the tedium of the road.


10cc - "Dreadlock Holiday" Dreadlock

Debuted #92, Peaked #44, 10 Weeks on chart)



Here's another example of a 10cc song that injected some humor into a situation that might not have been taken lightly. While "Dreadlock Holiday" features a light reggae beat and brings up images of a vacation in an exotic locale, reading the lyrics without the accompanying music tells a different story. The tourist in the song is finding himself in the seedy underbelly of the island paradise and being ripped off at every turn. Written after an experience Justin Hayward and 10cc member Eric Stewart while visiting Barbados, the song offered a warning that may have been lost in the music.

In the first verse, an Englishman is minding his own business when accosted by natives on the street. Some lines make it clear he's an Englishman ("it was a present from me mother" and "I don't like cricket...I love it") who is obviously out of his element ("you're alone, a long way from home"). In the final verse, after extricating himself from the earlier incident, he's at his hotel and being offered some wares from a local lady. Some reviewers explain she's a prostitute, but one line ("my harvest is the best") implies that she's selling some righteous Ganja. The lyrics don't really give any indication whether she's also a working lady but it is entirely possible.

In any case, before the song fades out he's singing "Don't like Jamaica...I love it!" so whatever he's being given, he's enjoying it.


John Belushi - "Louie, Louie" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #94, Peaked #89, 4 Weeks on chart)



Film tie-ins are much more common today, but here's an interesting one from Animal House. This song was included on the film soundtrack but wasn't performed solely by John Belushi on screen. In the film, the song played during a raucous fraternity toga party and its words were comically indiscernible when sung by Bluto (Belushi's character) and his Delta brothers. This was both a way to show how drunk they were and the fact that the hit 1963 version by The Kingsmen wasn't all that easy to understand at any level of sobriety.

Having Belushi sing on the soundtrack wasn't much of a stretch, as he had been showing his chops on Saturday Night Live even before making Animal House, first as Joe Cocker and then as one-half of The Blues Brothers. Before the decade was finished, he'd enjoy a #1 album as a member of that act and score a few more hit singles before teaming up again with Animal House director John Landis on a Blues Brothers movie.

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