Eleven new singles made their debut in Billboard this week, with six of them reaching the Top 40 and three getting inside the Top 10. The list includes familiar material by Fleetwood Mac and Bob Seger, as well as some occasionally-forgotten material by Glen Campbell and Leo Sayer. There is a wildly popular movie theme by John Williams, as well as a surprise hit by The Floaters and a change of pace by War. A surprising point of view by Mac McAnally deserves a fresh listen. Even the three low-charting songs have some merit: Johnny "Guitar" Watson lays down a funky groove, Engelbert Humperdinck tries his hand at country crooning and Hodges, James & Smith attempt to rework a jazz standard.
This week's issue of Billboard is missing from the archive over at Google Books, so I'll once again recommend checking out my other blog, 80s Music Mayhem. That blog travels through the 1980s one year at a time, and last week finished up a look at some songs from 1988. Next week is '89, before returning to 1980 the following week. If you're a fan of 80s music as well, feel free to stop by often. I certainly won't mind the company.
Fleetwood Mac - "Don't Stop"
(Debuted #72, Peaked #3, 17 Weeks on chart)
While many critics and music scribes like to point out that the Rumours LP was recorded during a period of high stress for most of the group's members (and that the collection of songs was a reflection of that), "Don't Stop" has a very positive vide. In fact, the lyrics are saying that what's in the past can't be changed, so it's better to just keep moving forward regardless. As if to punctuate the optimism behind the words, the music has a bounce to it as well. Though sung by Lindsay Buckingham, it was actually written by Christine McVie.
Often mistakenly attributed as "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," the song would get a second life in 1992 as a campaign theme song for Bill Clinton as he ran for U.S. President. His subsequent election reunited that lineup of the band, as they performed for his Inauguration. Despite the fact that the song would have been remembered anyway as part of one of the biggest albums of all time and a part of Fleetwood Mac's legacy, it has also been irrecovably linked with Clinton as well.
Leo Sayer - "How Much Love"
(Debuted #77, Peaked #17, 15 Weeks on chart)
When you just scored two straight #1 singles, so you may as well go for the hat trick. Or so the idea went when Leo Sayer's "How Much Love" was issued as teh thirs single from his Endless Flight LP. However, despite its bubbly lyrics, it's impeccable production and that catchy piano line, it just managed to reach the Top 20. It fared better in Sayer's native U.K., reaching #10 on that side of the Atlantic.
"How Much Love" was co-written by Sayer and Barry Mann and was well-suited for 1977's general "sound," but perhaps the radio audience was getting a little tired of Sayer. It had a definite ebullience that went well as a pop song; in fact, some who remember the song from when it played may be surprised to see it wasn't a Top 10 hit.
The Floaters - "Float On"
(Debuted #81, Peaked #2, 16 Weeks on chart)
Astrology was something that seems to be a part of the 1970s. In fact, one of the stereotypical things a jump-suited swinger will do after approaching a lady at the bar in the movies is to ask her what her sign is. Personally, I never got into the whole astrology thing (in fact...if I did, I'd have never bothered getting into a relationship with my wife, since our signs aren't compatible at all).
For the Floaters' only pop hit, four of the band's members (for whatever reason, James Mitchell doesn't join in even though he wrote the song) introduce themselves by astrological sign, first name and a short explanation of his ideal companion. With the New Age-type sonic landscape playing behind the words, the song comes off as an early video dating ad. On the LP, the song was eleven minutes long, which made it ideal for a late-night DJ to put on to allow for a smoke break (or another necessary function). The single version was cut down to three minutes and change.
The Floaters were a side project for James Mitchell after The Detroit Emeralds fell apart; in fact, the members all lived in the same Detroit neighborhood. After "Float On" became one of the biggest hits of 1977 -- #1 R&B for six weeks, #1 in the U.K., #2 pop -- the band didn't capitalize. They had one more R&B hit but nothing else, and disappeared after three LPs.
Mac McAnally - "It's A Crazy World" (Not Available on iTunes)
(Debuted #83, Peaked #37, 9 Weeks on chart)
During my time working in a country radio station (in 1994), I heard a song by Mac McAnally I thought was great. It was called "Down the Road," and while it wasn't part of our song rotation, it sat there in case one of the jocks felt like putting it on. I worked the overnight shift and had a little leeway about deviating from the rotation, so I'd occasionally put it on. That song made me look McAnally up, and I found that he'd written Ricky Van Shelton's "Crime of Passion" (a song I was familiar with, even if I wasn't exactly wild about it) as well as Alabama's "Old Flame" (which I still adore). Then I found out that he had a minor pop hit in 1977.
Mac McAnally was still 19 years old when "It's a Crazy World" debuted on the Hot 100. Listening to it now, it still has a timeless quality because it doesn't sound like something that came out in 1977 (at least, not as much as other songs on this week's chart). The YouTube video above has images from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which supports my own belief that this song could be applicable today as much as it was when it came out.
An acoustic guitar is the main instrument, with a soft orchestra joining in on during the first chorus. The lyrics are really mature to be coming from somebody so young, with lines about young men taking up arms for somebody else's cause and how there are certain truths that can't be helped. It's a very introverted but psychological view that I'd have never had when I was 19.
By the way...I wasn't the only one who noticed "Down the Road" over the years. In 2008, Kenny Chesney brought McAnally in to do the song as a duet. It quickly became a #1 country hit.
War - "L.A. Sunshine"
(Debuted #84, Peaked #45, 10 Weeks on chart)
War was a group known for its diversity, and as the 1970s wore on, they were willing to experiment with the various styles they put on record. For instance, in 1977 they issued the Platinum Jazz LP for Blue Note. It would be their only record with the noted jazz label. The title told most of the story, and many of the compositions were extended instrumentals.
On the album (and on the YouTube video above), "L.A. Sunshine" was an 11-minute plus workout. It was trimmed down to a more radio-friendly length for the single. A celebration of the band's home city, it stopped just short of making the Top 40. Following three straight Top 10 singles, it would be the first chart single to miss the Top 40 in nearly seven years.
Bob Seger - "Rock And Roll Never Forgets" (Not Available on iTunes)
(Debuted #85, Peaked #41, 8 Weeks on chart)
After several years of building a rabid following around his hometown of Detroit and around the Midwest, Bob Seger finally broke through to national stardom in 1977 with his Night Moves LP. "Rock and Roll Never Forgets" was the track that opened the album, before giving way to the reminiscence of the title song. It was quite an opening number, opening with a guitar solo and ending with a lively horn section. It remains a favorite of Seger's on AOR and classic rock radio formats.
However, like all of Seger's music, it isn't available on any digital format. Seger remains one of the last major rock stars who hasn't embraced digital music. Whether that affects his marketability to a new audience remains to be seen (though I doubt it will, since his hit material is fairly familiar to anybody who listens to certain radio stations).
Glen Campbell - "Sunflower"
(Debuted #86, Peaked #39, 11 Weeks on chart)
"Sunflower" was written by Neil Diamond and sung by Glen Campbell. In 1977, that meant it should have been a big adult contemporary hit. It managed to live up to the legacy and crossed over to boot, hitting #1 on the AC chart, in addition to #4 on the country chart and making the pop Top 40. It was Campbell's eight -- and last -- #1 adult contemporary single.
While the song carries an ubeat, happy melody, whistling at the fade and innocent lines about falling in love using the sunflower as a metaphor, a cursory reading of the song's lyric sheet without the music could be seen as pretty creepy. In fact, it can be interpreted as the words of a stalker. But then again, lyrics can often be taken way out of context...even if you look past the fact that Campbell himself was about to carry on a relationship with Tanya Tucker, who -- while not a minor -- was more than 20 years his junior.
The London Symphony Orchestra/John Williams - "Star Wars (Main Title)"
(Debuted #89, Peaked #10, 17 Weeks on chart)
I turned five years old in 1977 and can barely remember what life was like before Star Wars. In my case, I still remember the first time I saw a couple of the kids in my neighborhood playing with the action figures. Intrigued that the characters had names (they called them "Chewbacca," "Luke Skywalker" and "Darth Vader"), I found out that there was a movie with them and was really quick convincing my parents to let me watch it. Over the years, I've lost count of how many times I've seen the film and its sequels (as for the "other" trilogy, I watched those one or two times each).
In 1977, Star Wars was a phenomenon. By the end of that summer, it was the biggest movie of all time and its dramatic score became some of the most beloved classical-influenced material to kids this side of the Warner Brothers cartoons. I've often wondered how many people were turned on to classical music thanks to movie composers like John Williams.
Williams was a show business veteran by then, having contributed to films since 1958. Being part of a blockbuster wasn't even new to him, either. When Star Wars broke box office receipt records, it overtook Jaws, another film with a distinctive "sound" that Williams composed. He made his mark in other films such as Valley of the Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.
While the cinematography of Star Wars itself was influenced by John Ford, samurai films and World War II dogfight scenes, the music was also composed with nods to past films as well as to the music of Richard Strauss (who composed "Also Sprach Zarathustra," another song that is heavily identified with a movie). To this day, the Star Wars soundtrack is still the biggest selling symphonic soundtrack of all time.
Johnny "Guitar" Watson - "A Real Mother For Ya"
(Debuted #90, Peaked #41, 12 Weeks on chart)
Though his name doesn't usually show up on a lot of lists, and his hit singles are small in number, Johnny "Guitar" Watson was a deeply influential stage presence. While many fans point to George Clinton and Sly Stone as pioneers of the funk sound, it should be noted that both paid attention to Watson as they developed their acts. His guitar work influenced musicians of other styles as well, such as Frank Zappa and Stevie Ray Vaughan and even non-guitarists like Etta James. His stage character "The Gangster of Love" was an inspiration for Steve Miller, who referenced it in several of his songs including "The Joker."
"A Real Mother For Ya" is a really funky tune. Watson wrote the song and played all of the instuments except for the drums on the record. It gets into its groove pretty quickly and showcases his blues-influenced fingerwork nicely. It's one of those songs that has been done many times but doesn't ever seen to match the original. Such was the talent of Johnny "Guitar" Watson.
Hodges, James & Smith - "Since I Fell For You/I'm Falling In Love" (Not Available on iTunes)
(Debuted #97, Peaked #96, 6 Weeks on chart)
Back in March, I mentioned the story behind "Since I Fell for You" in this blog when I wrote about Laura Lee's 1972 version. Given the fact that so many songs at the time had been given the disco treatment, it was only a matter of time before "Since I Fell for You" would find itself in the crosshairs as well. I'll preface my review by pointing out that I really was knocked out by Lee's version when I wrote that review, and this one comes across as a weak attempt in comparison. So, take that as you read the next couple of paragraphs.
Hodges, James & Smith was formed by 1960s Motown A&R man Mickey Stevenson. They were originally a quartet called Hodges, James Smith & Crawford and were formed to be a new version of The Supremes and primed to work the nightclubs and upscale gigs. That didn't work out and the group was eventually reduced to a trio.
"Since I Fell For You" was written in 1945, but the song that joined it in the medley -- "I'm Falling in Love" -- was written by Stevenson. It was the trio's only Hot 100 single and one of the three R&B hits they would have.
Engelbert Humperdinck - "Goodbye My Friend" (Not Available on iTunes)
(Debuted #98, Peaked #97, 3 Weeks on chart)
What a great title for the last song of this entry.
For his follow-up to his career-reviving hit "After the Lovin'," Engelbert Humperdinck went with a song that was firmly rooted in the "countrypolitan" sound that was bringing country music to a new, supposedly more sophisticated audience. While not a big hit on either the pop or country chart, it actually had a better showing on country (#93 country, #97 pop). While this seems like a misdirected career trajectory, it's worth pointing out that another U.K.-based crooner whose hits had died down, Tom Jones, had recently performed to the country audience and did rather well.
All the hallmarks of a country song circa 1977 are there: steel guitar solo? Check. Lush female backup singers? You bet. Adultery in the lyrics? Perhaps, considering how you understand the "love affair" in the lyrics. In the end, the song is about pouring water on an old flame that's gone out. That's a time-honored topic that's familiar to many audiences.
While not a bad song from an adult contemporary point of view, it may appeal more to country fans whose idea of the sound skews more toward Ray Price (his 1970s persona, not the 1950s version), Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell and less toward Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Gary Stewart or Mel Street.