More than half...
Nine new songs debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. More than half (five) would be Top 40 hits. More than half of those (three) would make the Top 10. And More than half of those hits (two) would make it to #1. One of those chart-toppers would feature lyrics about death and suicide, the other about a young lady who was saving herself for a man who'd never come back for her. Among the other hits: a 2-sided single by Paul McCartney that was a nursery rhyme, a New York-based group whose singer was sounding a lot like McCartney, a Grass Roots song that sounded almost exactly like one of their previous hits, a Latin-flavored remake of a classic '60s tune and a song from a guy best known for fronting the Shondells.
If you'd like to check out the Hot 100 and see what other songs were hits at the time, the June 17, 1972 edition is available at Google Books. The complete Hot 100 list is on page 73. A front-page story explains that Motown was about to move its main offices to Los Angeles and leave a skeleton crew at its famed Detroit location. On page 65 is a discussion about how the newest single from John Lennon that had what we now call "the N-word" in the title was getting some brushback from radio stations, jukebox operators and retailers wary of the controversy from having the word on the record. It's actually a very interesting article.
Looking Glass - "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" (Not Available on MP3)
(Debuted #68, Peaked #1, 16 Weeks on chart)
This big hit was a story song. Brandy is a girl who works as a waitress in a bar that sits near a naval base. Despite the come-ons from the sailor boys frequenting the joint, she chooses to remain true to the one man she loved. The only problem was that he wasn't willing to give up life on the seas for her. So she continues to wear his chain and hope he'll return to her someday. Featuring nice group harmonies and some horns that backed up the band without being overly intrusive, the song has aged better than many other 1972 hits.
Looking Glass was a band formed in New Jersey by four Rutgers students. After graduation, they decided to stay together and play local clubs and bars along the Jersey shore. After a couple of years, they were signed to Epic Records by famed impresario Clive Davis and released a few singles that failed to chart. Their third failed single was called "Don't it Make You Feel Good," which failed to attract any attention outside the group's home base until a Washington, D.C. DJ turned it over one day and got a positive response from his audience. "Brandy" broke out from there and would become one of the biggest hits that summer.
The irony about having a B-side hit that big is that casual fans didn't realize the group was a harder-edged act than their hits indicated. Since "Brandy" was essentially a throw-away, the people who only knew Looking Glass from their exposure on AM hit radio didn't always realize they were a Jersey club band. That eventually alienated fans and stalled later singles.
Here's an interesting bit of information about this song...earlier in 1972, Scott English would reach the lower reaches of the Hot 100 with a song he wrote. Called "Brandy," (featured in this blog in 2011) it was a different song altogether from the Looking Glass hit. However, in 1974 it was slated to be covered by another Brooklyn native, Barry Manilow (at the behest of Clive Davis, who was then running Manilow's record label). By then, the title "Brandy" was identified with the Looking lass hit, so Manilow suggested the song be called "Mandy" to avoid any confusion.
The Grass Roots - "The Runway" (Not Available on MP3)
(Debuted #81, Peaked #39, 9 Weeks on chart)
After several radio-friendly hits during the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Grass Roots had established a sound that was familiar to those who listened to AM radio during those years. Singer Rob Grill's voice was a constant presence, as were the studio tricks of co-producers/group mentors Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan. However, as the years wore on, the songs began to have a similar sound despite occasional tweaks and updates to the sound.
For instance, listeners hearing "The Runway" may have wondered if they were listening to the band's earlier hit "Two Divided By Love." The instrumental opening sounds a lot like "Divided," the vocals, harmonies and some of the instruments sound like they were simply borrowed from it as well. Both songs were written by new producers Brian Lambert and Dennis Potter, but that doesn't excuse the similarities. As a result, "The Runway" would be the band's final Top 40 hit and by 1973 they were regularly missing the Hot 100 entirely.
Argent - "Hold Your Head Up"
(Debuted #82, Peaked #5, 15 Weeks on chart)
Considering how widely played this song is even today, it's surprising to know that "Hold Your Head Up" was the only song Argent ever charted in the Hot 100. Consisting of Rod Argent and Chris White (both former members of the 1960s British Invasion group The Zombies) and singer/songwriter Russ Ballard, many fans would think the band had scored some additional hits.
Noted for its slow-march rhythm, its guitar lines that are actually backing up the keyboards as lead instrument and the mantra-like "Hold your head up...HIGH" chant, the song would become synonymous with the Summer of '72. Years after its release, it still finds its way into period documentaries (such as those covering the kidnapping and murder of that year's Israeli Olympic team in Munich). It continues to be remembered, long after many of the songs charting alongside it have been forgotten.
Among Argent's other songs were "Liar," which became a big hit for Three Dog Night, and "God Gave Rock & Roll to You," best-known for its version by the group Kiss. Ballard's later songs included "Since You've Been Gone" (a three-time Hot 100 hit by three other artists) and America's last Top 10 hit "You Can Do Magic."
Stories - "I'm Coming Home" (Not Available on MP3)
(Debuted #83, Peaked #42, 12 Weeks on chart)
Stories are remembered as a one-hit wonder for their biggest hit, "Brother Louie." While that #1 hit about an interracial relationship would be their only song to reach the Top 40, they had three other singles chart of the Hot 100. The group's first hit "I'm Coming Home" would be the highest-charting of those. While the group was new, former Left Banke member Michael Browne was the keyboard player.
For a band that was admittedly influenced by The Fab Four, "I'm Coming Home" was quite Beatlesque. While Ian Lloyd sang it, he sounds like he's trying to channel Paul McCartney -- "I'm Down" at a lower amplitude -- the piano solo sounds like it was a "Rocky Raccoon" outtake and the song's final note was a discordant one, like "A Day in the Life" but not as sustained. Surprisingly, the song doesn't come off as a blatant Beatles rip-off despite all those elements.
Wings - "Mary Had A Little Lamb" b/w "Little Woman Love" (Not Available on MP3)
(Debuted #85, Peaked #28, 7 Weeks on chart)
And here's the video for the record's B-Side:
Speaking of Paul McCartney...
Not content with being popular among the fans who'd grown up listening to his music, Paul McCartney attempted to get in the good graces of the preschool set as well. Legend has it that Macca recorded a children's song as a result of the BBC banning his previous single "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" due to its partisan content. However, McCartney has claimed in interviews that "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was already on tape before that ban was handed down, but the rumor persists.
While the "ban this, BBC!" theory sounds great, it could be that McCartney -- who had three kids at home -- came up with the idea while playing his role as father. In any case, it's a testament to the fact that many of his fans were buying anything with his name on it to see an electrified lullaby making the Top 40. The B-side "Little Woman Love" was helpful to radio programmers who weren't enthusiastic about playing a kiddie song to an audience that had outgrown it. As an uptempo piano boogie tune, "Little Woman Love" was passable enough for a pop tune even if it was a little disappointing by the one ex-Beatle known for his sense of melody.
Originally, neither song would be included on any Wings or McCartney LP (including Greatest Hits compilations) until a 2001 CD re-release of Wild Life that added both songs from this single and "Give Ireland Back to the Irish."
Gilbert O'Sullivan - "Alone Again (Naturally)"
(Debuted #88, Peaked #1, 18 Weeks on chart)
Though many people remember this song for its familiar tune, what is often missed is the fact that the narrator of this story is feeling suicidal. Having been left at the altar on his wedding day, he's contemplating throwing himself off a tower.After that, the song veers off to other sad topics like the deaths of parents. Americans looked past all that morbidity and made the song one of the year's biggest hits, #1 for six weeks.
While "Alone Again" was the first U.S. hit for O'Sullivan, the Irish-born singer had been placing hits at home, in the U.K. and across Europe since 1970. At the time, he was using an image that cast him as a street-corner vendor during the Depression era. With Today, the LP that contained "Alone Again," O'Sullivan changed his "look" to a college glee club member, complete with a letterman's sweater prominently displaying a "G." That would be the way many Americans would remember him during his career.
Looking past the dark nature of the song's lyrics, a light melody carries the words, accompanied by a very understated acoustic guitar solo. Perhaps the musical part of the song is what helped buoy its success. A lot of songs about death and disaster would become hits during the 1970s, but few ("Seasons in the Sun" would be an exception) were what anybody could call understated. While many of those songs played out like made-for-TV melodrama, "Alone Again" sounds like its narrator has come to grips with the fact that death is simply what happens at the end of life and is doing his best to cope with it. In the end, it's likely a deeper song than many give it credit.
Vigrass and Osbourne - "Men Of Learning" (Not Available as MP3)
(Debuted #89, Peaked #65, 7 Weeks on chart)
Paul Vigrass and Gary Osbourne were British singer/songwriters. Together, they formed a duet between 1972 and '74 and released two LPs. The first, called Queues, contained their only Hot 100 listing "Men of Learning." Asking the musical question "Where are all the men of learning?" at a time when the world still seemed to be reeling from the events of the 1960s, it sounds very much like a Crosby, Stills & Nash song with its harmonies, instrumentation and topic. The B-side was "Forever Autumn," a song that would chart in 1978 when Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues recorded it (reviewed on this blog in 2010).
After splitting in 1974, Vigrass would become the lead singer of Quasar for a short time in the early 1980s. Osbourne continued writing, most notably as one of Elton John's post-Bernie Taupin collaborators. His words appeared on Elton's LPs from 1978-'82 and included the hits "Part Time Love," "Little Jeannie" and "Blue Eyes."
El Chicano - "Brown Eyed Girl"
(Debuted #90, Peaked #45, 7 Weeks on chart)
One of my favorite 1970s films was 1978's Up in Smoke. While El Chicano didn't make a personal appearance in Cheech & Chong's stoner comedy, they made their way into the script. After Pedro (Cheech) picks up the hitchhiking Man (Chong), they talk about Pedro's band and its stylistic "diversity." "Yeah, we play everything...from Santana to El Chicano. You know, like everything!"
El Chicano was a Latin-influenced soul band from Los Angeles. Since their style was often referred to as "brown-eyed soul," it made sense for the band to record their take on Van Morrison's 1967 classic "Brown Eyed Girl." A smoother, more laid-back take on Morrison's tremendously familiar song, El Chicano's version adds a piano, some Latin percussion a Santana-lite guitar part and some vocal embellishments to give it a much different vibe. While giving the song a feel like it was being played at a backyard barbecue or block party, it still comes off nicely.
Tommy James - "Cat's Eye In The Window"
(Debuted #100, Peaked #90, 4 Weeks on chart)
After his group The Shondells broke up in 1970, Tommy James kept himself busy with his solo projects as well as writing and producing for other acts. While his solo chart singles were often hit-and-miss, they were usually cut from the same cloth as the work that made him and his band among the biggest singles acts just before the advent of the album-oriented rock wave. Gone were the psychedelic flourishes that marked hits like "Crimson and Clover" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion," but James did his best to stay current as the 1970s kicked into high gear. Sometimes his material worked ("Draggin' the Line," Alive & Kickin's "Tighter, Tighter"), and sometimes they didn't resonate with the audience. Nevertheless, Tommy James stayed true to his art.
"Cat's Eye in the Window" would be one of James's lesser hits of the era. Only reaching #90, few beyond his fan base paid it much attention. However, the lyrics are worth checking out. Telling a tale about seeing a three hundred year-old mansion that had fallen into disrepair, it makes one wonder if the song was about the decline of the United States. After the events of the 1960s, that may not have been an uncommon feeling.
The LP version of the song had a great electric piano solo (evocative of "Riders on the Storm" by The Doors) but the single version sadly omits that.