Saturday, March 20, 2010

This Week's Review -- March 18, 1972

Of eleven new singles debuting on the Billboard Hot 100, nearly half made the Top 40. Two of those five would become Top 10 hits. This is another one of those weeks where you'd have been hard pressed even then to find a radio station that would have comfortably played every one of the songs listed. The singles run the gamut from soul to hard rock, country to classical(ish), singer/songwriter introspection to gospel influence, and folksy to rock & roll revivalist. In all, an interesting list.

Many past issues of Billboard are available online to view for free through Google Books. The March 18, 1972 issue can be found here.The full Hot 100 list is on page 58, while an interview with longtime DJ Charlie Tuna has a neat interview on page 26. He had just been cut loose by Los Angeles station KHJ and speaks about his situation, his feelings about working for Bill Drake and his views on the industry. As a former radio DJ, I found the piece fascinating. Growing up, I remember Tuna filling in for some of the weekend shows I used to listen to, like Casey Kasem's American Top 40. Speaking of Kasem, his picture appears in an ad on page 27, encouraging stations to become affiliates for that show. Finally, a warning: if you have children or are wasting time at work...try and avoid the advertisement on page 34, which features a topless woman.

While I'm still on the subject of Casey Kasem, past episodes of American Top 40 are played -- without commercials -- twice a week on Sirius/XM's 70s on 7 channel. Clicking the link below can get you started on having those shows beamed into your home, car or wherever you listen to music.

Sirius Satellite Radio Inc.

Aretha Franklin - "Day Dreaming" Aretha Franklin - The Very Best of Aretha Franklin - The 70's - Day Dreaming

(Debuted #58, Peaked #5, 12 Weeks on chart)

Aretha Franklin's heyday was likely the late 1960s when you look at her singles, but it can also be argued that -- album-wise -- the early 1970s were a strong period for her as well. Perhaps one of her strongest studio LPs was Young, Gifted and Black, which contained five songs that not only charted on the Billboard Hot 100, but also reached the Top 10 on its soul chart. Of all those songs, "Day Dreaming" was the highest charting. It reached #5 on the pop chart and #1 soul.

While an instrumental backdrop of flute and horns provide a "dreamy" setting, Aretha's lyrics express devotion to her man and her willingness to be with him. While never coming right out and saying so, it's understood that her daydreaming is also carnal in nature. Its sensual nature makes the song a mature take on Little Peggy March's "I Will Follow Him," updated for a new decade. Only this time she's got her own reasons for following him.

Jackson Browne - "Doctor My Eyes" Jackson Browne - Jackson Browne - Doctor My Eyes

(Debuted #80, Peaked #8, 12 Weeks on chart)

By the early 1970s, many singer/songwriters who specialized in personal, introspective music that was both intimate and sensitive. Among the most remembered of these was Jackson Browne, who had been writing songs for others since he was fresh out of high school and finally releasing his first album in early 1972. He would be more of a fan favorite and critical darling than a chart juggernaut, however: His first three albums sold well but didn't make Top 10 on the LP charts and his first single, "Doctor My Eyes" would be his only Top 10 single of the 1970s.

A song about having grown up and becoming numb to the process of life, there are a couple of things that stand out musically. First is the odd piano part that has what sounds like a dissonant note at the end. According to legend, Browne practiced on a piano that had a stuck key and when a note was hit, another key would sound a half-second later. The sound stuck with him and he used it for the song. Second, there's a memorable guitar solo by Jesse Ed Davis. Additionally, David Crosby and Graham Nash are credited with background harmonies. Not a bad choice for a debut single, and one of Browne's most recognized tunes.

The Soul Children - "Hearsay"  The Soul Children - Stax 50 - 50th Anniversary Celebration - Hearsay

(Debuted #94, Peaked #44, 11 Weeks on chart)

The Soul Children was a two man, two-woman vocal group from Memphis and a part of the roster at Stax Records from 1968 until the label went bankrupt. Specializing in songs about adultery, they were a decent but overlooked R&B group. They were formed by Isaac Hayes and David Porter to help fill the void when Stax lost the services of Sam & Dave. Though the band broke up by the end of the 1970s, its two male singers still perform as solo artists.

As a song, "Hearsay" plays out like an argument between two spouses when one's accusing the other of infidelity. While the lyrics are told from the husband's point of view, the middle break features a discussion between him and his "wife" that sounds a lot like a marital spat. The lyrics mention that the wife's best friend Shirley, who's been telling her that her man's been playing around. He asserts that Shirley has been making moves on him and he's been able to fend off her advances. Somehow, she doesn't buy it and is sick of hearing the gossip. This would have been a great 1967 soul song: the Memphis Horns are vibrant, Steve Cropper's guitar licks are sublime and the interaction between John Colbert and Anita Lewis evokes Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. However, a great 1967-type soul song came off sounding stale in 1972 and the song missed the Top 40.

Nilsson - "Jump Into The Fire" Harry Nilsson - Nilsson Schmilsson - Jump Into the Fire

(Debuted #87, Peaked #27, 9 Weeks on chart)

There's a scene in the 1990 film Goodfellas that takes place in 1980. Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) is making a trip in his car to pick up drugs from his dealer and to drop off some guns. While he's in a cocaine-induced paranoia he watches a police helicopter flying above him, tracking his movement. As the scene unfolds, the song "Jump into the Fire" plays in the background in two different parts. It's somehow perfect for the film's setting.

Harry Nilsson had just had the biggest hit of his career ("Without You") and released "Jump into the Fire" as a followup. For fans attracted to the lovely melody and lyric of the first hit, the new single might have come as a surprise because they couldn't be much more different. "Jump into the Fire" was a rocking tune with a different type of emotion altogether. In fact, the entire Nilsson Schmilsson LP was likely a surprise to fans who bought it on the strength of  "Without You."

Emerson, Lake and Palmer - "Nut Rocker" Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Pictures At an Exhibition - Nutrocker

(Debuted #100, Peaked #70, 6 Weeks on chart)

This electronic interpretation of "The March of the Wooden Soldiers" from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite is commonly attributed to the progressive rock trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer but had earlier been a minor U.S. hit (and U.K. #1 single) by B. Bumble & The Stingers in 1962. A live recording, the song was taken from a 1971 show in Newcastle City Hall, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and closed out the LP Pictures at an Exhibition.

While occasional live performances manage to break into the U.S. Top 40 and a few classical-themed tunes (like "Joy" by Apollo 100 and "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Deodato) could become surprise hits, this one had a rather tepid reaction. It stalled at #70, well short of the #23 peak of the 1962 original. As for ELP, they were more successful as an album act than for their singles because their progressive style and classical influences were better served by a full LP than a 3-minute cut.

Led Zeppelin - "Rock And Roll" Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV (Remastered) - Rock and Roll

(Debuted #77, Peaked #47, 7 Weeks on chart)

"Rock and Roll" is one of Led Zeppelin's best-known songs. And for a song with such a simple title, the music doesn't disappoint the listener. From its propulsive beat, to John Paul Jones matching Bonzo's beat with his bass, Jimmy Page's blistering guitar work and Robert Plant's words coming out like he had just thought them up. In fact, legend has it that the song was concocted in the studio from a rehearsal session and within fifteen minutes the song's framework was complete. All four band members are listed as composers, which gives some creedence to that story. The lyrics give a nod to the rock & roll songs from the 1950s and 60s, mentioning "The Stroll" and "Book of Love."

For nearly four decades, fans have argued about the name of the LP that contained "Rock and Roll." Most commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV, it's also known as Runes because of the symbols representing the members of the band. Over the years, Atlantic catalogs have also listed it as Four Symbols and The Fourth Album. Occasionally, it's also been called Untitled and Zoso, after the one legible symbol. When issued, the band members decided to release it without a name. In interviews, some especially Jimmy Page) have referred to it as "The fourth album." Although the confusion was purely intentional, nobody denies that it's a classic album.

Canned Heat - "Rockin' With The King" Canned Heat - The Very Best of Canned Heat - Rockin' With the King (2005 Remaster)

(Debuted #99, Peaked #88, 5 Weeks on chart)

After a song called "Rock and Roll" that tipped its hat to past influences, this song went one better: While music evoking 1950s-era rock & roll fueled the track, Canned Heat singer Bob "Bear" Hite dueted with one of the men who made some of those great classics, Little Richard. Since Canned Heat was a group founded by two guys deeply influenced by the blues, it may have been a great experience; however, one of those two founding members (Alan Wilson) had died in 1970. While the band was trying to remain vital in a business where there was no shortage of white guys who loved the blues, doing a song that sounded like it belonged in a rock & roll revival show might not have been a wise career move. It would be the group's final Hot 100 entry, even though the band remains together today and survived the 1981 death of Hite (the other founding member).

It's a shame the song wasn't a bigger hit, though. It was a lot of fun to listen to.

Jo Jo Gunne - "Run Run Run" Jo Jo Gunne - Rhino Hi-Five: Jo Jo Gunne - EP - Run Run Run

(Debuted #90, Peaked #27, 11 Weeks on chart)

While this was the only hit listed for the group Jo Jo Gunne,the band was formed by former members of the group Spirit and was led by Jay Ferguson, who had a million-selling single "Thunder Island" later in the decade. "Run Run Run," the band's best-known song, contained a stellar guitar groove. While the lyrics are sparse -- there's a lot of repetition of the word "run" and few lines beyond that -- and seem to indicate somebody's running from the Fuzz, the instrumental content makes it seem like they're having a hell of a time doing it. It's not complicated at all, which is part of what makes the song work.

Confession time...while doing this blog, I've often come across songs I've known for years but somehow had the words all wrong. Call it a "Kiss This Guy" moment for me if you will. In the final verse of "Run Run Run" there's a line that goes "oh, welcome to the party, we're all just papers in the wind." For years, I had misheard the line as "we're all just pickles in the wind." Which made no sense but as I mentioned before, the words weren't what hooked me on the song.

PG&E - "Thank God For You Baby"

(Debuted #98, Peaked #97, 2 Weeks on chart)

After a few hits as Pacific Gas & Electric, the group shortened its name to initials for this song that ended up being their final hit single. It seems the California-based utility company had asked the group to change its name or face the wrath of their attorneys, but the possibility of litigation wasn't troubling the band as much as its revolving membership. By 1972, the group's lineup was very different from the one they featured on their breakthrough 1970 hit "Are You Ready?" Only drummer/singer Charlie Allen was left from those days. After "Thank God For You Baby" dropped from the charts, the band continued to be unstable and would disintegrate by 1973.

"Thank God For You Baby" -- as the title implies -- is a song that has a gospel feel, complete with a female chorus, church organ and what sounds like a small upright piano. As the vocalist breaks out like a preacher on some of his lines, it seems all that's missing is the voices of parishioners testifying from the congregation. While the idea of equating the love of a woman with religious fervor wasn't a new concept by any means, it had already been done much better by others.

Jerry Wallace - "To Get To You" Jerry Wallace - Jerry Wallace's Greatest Hits - To Get to You

(Debuted #97, Peaked #48, 12 Weeks on chart)

While I've made little secret in past entries about my deep adoration and respect for country music, I do have some limits. While I love the musical virtuosity many of the genre's instrumentalists possess and the pure (some call it "authentic") sound of many of its singers, I am more a fan of the honky-tonk sound and less willing to sit through some of the songs done by crooners. That rule isn't necessarily set in stone; I am a fan of George Jones and Conway Twitty -- who've done their share of crooning -- but both had other styles that didn't corner them into that type of singing. In the case of Jerry Wallace, his delivery shows why what is considered "classic country" tends more toward the hard-livin', hard-drinkin' songs and many smooth-voiced love ballads are largely forgotten.

Jerry Wallace and Charlie Rich both traveled similar paths. Both started out doing rockabilly-tinged pop in the late 1950s and matured into a country-influenced sound. Both were doing country/pop crossovers in the early 1970s. However, Rich's influence was more rooted in R&B and his delivery was often seen as more real, even if Wallace's velvet-smooth voice might have been more rich. His performance of "To Get to You" was pitch-perfect and probably heartfelt and sincere, but it didn't have the same emotion Rich brought to a song like "Behind Closed Doors" or "A Very Special Love Song" that covered a similar topic. Therefore, Rich is remembered while Wallace has largely been forgotten even among country fans.

Don McLean - "Vincent" Don McLean - American Pie - Vincent  b/w "Castles In The Air" Don McLean - Tapestry - Castles In the Air

(Debuted #78, Peaked #12, 12 Weeks on chart)

"American Pie" was such a big hit -- both as a multi-week #1 smash and as a long-running song -- Don McLean had to follow it up with two sides on his next single. That's only partially true; during the single's stay on the Hot 100, "Vincent" was listed alone when it debuted but "Castles in the Air" would be added to the listing during its sixth week on the survey. It's likely enough listeners and disc jockeys flipped the disc over to make the B-side worthy of hit status as well.

McLean wrote "Vincent" to honor Vincent Van Gogh, a man who is considered a great artist today but was barely noticed during his own lifetime. His lack of recognition during his lifetime is what led to lyrics like "they didn't listen, they did not know how...perhaps they'll listen now." References are made to Van Gogh's mental health ("suffered for your sanity") and his suicide. Elements of his artwork are also referenced in the lyrics: starry night, trees and daffodils, morning fields of amber grain. I didn't know any of that when I first heard the song as a kid, but the abstract, seemingly scattershot references interested me enough to find out more.

The single's B-side wasn't included with "Vincent"on the American Pie LP but on McLean's previous album Tapestry (released before the iconic Carole King LP). When it was first released, that record was warmly received by critics but sold poorly. After "American Pie" was a surprise hit, fans eager to hear more bought enough copies of Tapestry to send it into Billboard's album chart. The renewed interest led United Artists to place the lead track from that LP as the B-side of the next single. Accompanied by a folk-influenced acoustic guitar, McLean's words express the feeling of not belonging and he desire to go back to a more simple life. Elegant and straightforward despite its wordiness, the only thing that doesn't seem right is that he's asking somebody else to say goodbye for him. It's a great song.

1 comment:

  1. Don McLean tried to have another recording at least once more in 1974 with "Fool's Paradise", but I don't know where it went.