Saturday, December 26, 2009

This Week's Review -- December 27, 1975

Since beginning my reviews last August, this is the first time I've done two consecutive weeks in a row, but the fact that Billboard stopped featuring a survey for the last week of the year after 1975 cut the number of available years for me to choose from by half. Of nine new singles entering the Hot 100 for the last week of 1975, all but one would eventually make the Top 40. From those eight songs, two would be Top 10 hits and one would reach #1. Interestingly, the first song in last week's review was by Paul Simon, while this week's list begins with his former partner.

In several previous posts, I've added links to past Billboard editions for the week in review. Unfortunately, this week's issue isn't in the archive at Google Books.

Art Garfunkel - "Break Away" Art Garfunkel - Breakaway - Break Away

(Debuted at #81, Peaked at #39, 11 weeks on chart)

Last week's review began with Paul Simon, who once was part of a very successful partnership with Art Garfunkel. As Simon was recording his 1975 LP Still Crazy After All These Years, he was going through a divorce and many of the songs he wrote for the album reflected his situation. Garfunkel was also going through his own divorce that year, but he wasn't a songwriter like his old buddy and the songs weren't necessarily about his personal issues. However, "Break Away" -- a song about a separation -- probably was hand-picked because of what was going on in his life.

Garfunkel's 1975 LP Breakaway was one of his most successful solo efforts. Produced by Richard Perry, the album would have three Top 40 singles. The highlight of the record would be the Simon & Garfunkel "reunion" song "My Little Town" but he also scored with a remake of "I Only Have Eyes for You" and the Gallagher & Lyle composition "Break Away." I would have called it the title song; however, the LP is spelled out as one word and the song is broken into two.

The lyrics tell about a man coming to grips with resuming his life after his lover has left and flown to another country across the ocean (Garfunkel is a New Yorker, so it implies she went to Europe, but writers Gallagher & Lyle were English, which would suggest she came to the US). Though he isn't going to stop her, he still hopes it's merely a phase and she'll return someday. Listening to the song, I can almost hear Paul Simon's voice backing Garfunkel up. I can't find a list online of the musicians involved in the song, but if Simon wasn't one of them whoever booked the session sure found a ringer.

The Four Seasons - "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)" Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons - Anthology - December, 1963 (Oh What A Night!)  (LP Version)

(Debuted at #85, Peaked at  #1, 27 weeks on chart)

The Four Seasons were making a big comeback in the mid-1970s, notching this #1 more than a decade after their last chart-topper. However, this was a much different group than the lineup that ruled the charts in the early 1960s. There were five members then and only Frankie Valli remained from the 1960s lineup that gave us "Sherry," "Rag Doll" and other classics. Additionally, the group had two new members who shared singing duties with Valli: Gerry Polci and Don Ciccone. For "December 1963" Polci handled the first verse, Ciccone took the second and Valli's distinctive falsetto came in for the chorus.

Another member of the Four Seasons during the glory days was Bob Gaudio, who co-wrote and produced "December 1963" for the group. He originally set the tune in 1933 and the lyrics were a celebration of end of Prohibition; however, to make it more "current" the year was changed. The lyrics were also altered to become a nostalgic look back at a sexual awakening. The song spent three weeks at #1 in its 27-week chart run. In 1994, a remixed version of the song peaked at #14 and enjoyed another 27-week stay on the Hot 100.

The Bee Gees - "Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)" Bee Gees - Main Course - Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)

(Debuted at #73, Peaked at #12, 16 weeks on chart)

The Bee Gees had experienced varying degrees of success for more than a decade before their Main Course LP in 1975, but there were many rough patches in the road for them. Though the group's three brothers were known for their harmonies, they went through some ill-advised ideas like a concept LP (Trafalgar) and a short breakup in 1969. Although the hits were sporadic, they notched some big ones, like "Words," "Lonely Days" and the chart-topping "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart". Their lesser hits -- like "Alive," and "Mr. Natural" and "Run to Me"-- often faded into obscurity except among the group's fans after their chart runs were over. In 1975, they finally found a sound they could grab onto and ride through the rest of the decade. In the process, they became the biggest recording act of the 1970s in the U.S. Making albums in Miami exposed the brothers to the burgeoning disco sounds that were making their way out of that city at the time, and they fully embraced the idea of a more dance-oriented groove.

Although even the non-hit LP songs had them too, much of the model for the group's late 1970s "sound" to those who listened to the radio came from the two most successful singles from Main Course, the #1 "You Should Be Dancing" and the Top 10 "Nights on Broadway." A third single was "Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)," which marked one of the best uses of Barry Gibb's high-pitched falsetto before their more familiar Saturday Night Fever era. It also gives brothers Robin and Maurice to show their own vocal harmonies. As the song ends, the group builds the emotion and the second half is much different vocally than the first. It's a device they'd use again (and better) in "Stayin' Alive" but the Brothers Gibb showed fans they were up to the task.

The Doobie Brothers - "I Cheat the Hangman" The Doobie Brothers - The Very Best of The Doobie Brothers - I Cheat the Hangman

(Debuted at #86, Peaked at #60, 4 weeks on chart)

Of the many Doobie Brothers songs that still get played on classic rock radio, "I Cheat the Hangman" is rarely one of them. When included on the group's LP Stampede, it was a six-and-a-half minute epic with a long buildup and an Old West feel. Written by guitarist Patrick Simmons, the song was influenced by the Ambrose Bierce short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. In the lyrics, a ghost is still hanging around and figures he's "cheated the hangman" because he's still there. After the words fade out, a false ending leads up to a two-minute instrumental outro that sounds like it was influenced by the classical piece Night on Bald Mountain from its string accompaniment.

Barry White - "Let the Music Play" Barry White - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Barry White - Let the Music Play

(Debuted at #70, Peaked at #32, 9 weeks on chart)

Barry White was a phenomenon. His sound was highly influential to the developing disco movement and provided a soundtrack for countless seductions. In the 1970s (and even later), when a man was entertaining a lady friend and put on a Barry White LP as "mood music," there was little doubt what was on his mind. The sound was made up by an orchestra (strings, woodwinds, horns), a steady beat and guitars. Among guitarists used on White's projects were acclaimed session men Ray Parker, Jr. and Lee Ritenour.

This was the title track of White's forthcoming LP Let the Music Play. Though the song included many of the hallmarks of his very successful songs from 1973 until then -- the sultry voice, the half-whisper at the beginning, the Love Unlimited Orchestra string section, music set for sweet lovin' -- Barry White's success was beginning to fade. This was his only Top 40 single from that LP and the singles from his next LP Is This Whatcha Wont? missed the Hot 100 entirely. Although he only had minor pop success for the rest of the decade (aside from one last Top 10 hit), his place in history remained secure and his music has become timeless even as many of his contemporaries and imitators have become forgotten.

Roxy Music - "Love is the Drug" Roxy Music - Siren - Love Is the Drug

(Debuted at # 89, Peaked at #30, 14 weeks on chart)

Roxy Music is an "art rock" band that was quite popular in their native U.K. and all across Europe during the 1970s and '80s but saw limited success in the U.S. Despite hitting the British Top 10 several times, "Love is the Drug" would be the only Top 40 U.S. hit (and one of only three Hot 100 singles) the group would enjoy before it broke up in 1983.

For a band that called itself "art rock," the music in "Love is the Drug" is fairly straightforward. Beginning with some sound effects (a record dropping on a turntable and a car driving away), it has a terrific bass line to open the song before a saxophone, scratch guitar, drums, keyboard and eventually Bryan Ferry's voice join in. A faint cowbell can be heard after the first chorus. While the instruments used on the song don't exactly fit the complexity often associated with art rock, the words in the vocal are pure rock. The lyrics even deal with going to a dance club after work and picking up somebody to spent the night with...not pretentious at all.

The Spinners - "Love or Leave" The Spinners - The Very Best of Spinners, Vol. 2 - Love or Leave

(Debuted at #77, Peaked at #36, 8 weeks on chart)

The Spinners were incredibly successful for much of the 1970s after toiling in obscurity for most of the 1960s. Ironically, the group was from Detroit (the home of Motown, their onetime label) but closely identified by the Philadelphia Soul sound because their biggest hits were produced by Thom Bell.

"Love or Leave" was the second single from the group's LP Pick of the Litter. It's a record featuring many of the band's hallmark features: an upbeat tempo, flawless background support by MFSB, vocal harmony and a fine lead vocal by Phillipe Wynn. The song reached Top 40 pop and Top 10 R&B, a decent showing but disappointing when compared to the LP's lead single "(They Just Can't Help it the) Games People Play."

The Commodores - "Sweet Love" The Commodores - The Commodores: Anthology - Sweet Love

(Debuted at #82, Peaked at #5, 23 weeks on chart)

Beginning as a group made up of students from the Tuskeegee Institute in 1967, the Commodores had spent much of the 1970s as a funk band but didn't make much headway on the chart. Trying their hand at a mellow romantic ballad like "Sweet Love," the group made the Top 10 for the first time. Other than a couple of uptempo hits ("Brick House," "Lady"), the group would become very popular through the rest of the 1970s with that formula. Taking note of this success, singer Lionel Richie would write more of those ballads for the group and later had a very successful solo career with them.

Cleddus Maggard and the Citizen's Band - "The White Knight" Cledus Maggard - The White Knight - The White Knight

(Debuted at #87, Peaked at #19, 15 weeks on chart)

For those who lived through the 1970s, there were many fads and crazes that were hugely popular but seem really silly today. Things like mood rings, pet rocks and plaid patterns as fashionable dress are fondly remembered but those who didn't live through that time often wonder what the allure was. For those fads that became subjects of hit songs, it's easier to explain...well, kind of. Ray Stevens had a #1 hit with "The Streak" but even that was a novelty song poking fun of somebody for running naked in public.

For the CB (short for "citizens' band," hence Maggard's "group" name) radio craze of the mid-1970s, there were several hit records: "Convoy" (high in the charts as this song debuted), the tear-inducing "Teddy Bear" and even a novelty tune called "C.B. Savage" that was itself a parody of "The White Knight." Nearly all of the CB-related tunes were also hits on the country chart, showing its place as a toy among the blue-collar crowd that listened to the music. Perhaps the fact that CB had a special lingo made it easier to write songs about.  "The White Knight" is full of CB language..."picture taker" (police with radar gun), "seat covers" (pretty girls in the passenger seat), "double nickels" (55 MPH, the maximum speed limit at the time) and "Smoky" or "Bear" (to borrow another '70s slang word...The Fuzz).

The story in the song involves a trucker who hears a person calling himself "The White Knight" on the CB who informs him where the state police are sitting and watching for speeders. As it turns out, The White Knight is a state trooper using the CB to entrap truckers for speeding. With mentions of interstate highways 75, 85 and 20, it appears Maggard's narrator is going north on I-75 (said he was going "out of Lake City" which is in northern Florida) and had passed over the Florida-Georgia border and the White Night is probably a Georgia Highway Patrolman. The single clocks in at just a little over four minutes but I'm told that the full LP version of the song is eight minutes long and tells an even better tale.

"Cledus Maggard" was Jay Huguely, an advertising executive who wrote "The White Knight" to cash in on the CB craze. Of course, the stage name was a nod to Merle Haggard, who's mentioned by name in the song as one of "the ten best things in life." The song was a minor pop hit and a #1 country song but the swift end of the CB fad dried up his future hits. He passed away in December 2008.

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