Saturday, May 22, 2010

This Week's Review -- May  21, 1977

An interesting group of debut hits this week. Ten new singles (including one that was returning after an earlier run), five that went Top 40 and one Top 10 hit. Among the artists included are both leads from the film A Star is Born. Surprisingly, one song by Jackson Browne that gets decent airplay today was a poor performer during its chart run. Also seen is an emerging trend that songs were staying on the charts longer: two songs would spend nearly 30 weeks aboard, while one song that missed the Top 40 still spent 14 weeks on the survey.

Google Books has an archive of past issues of Billboard magazine, including the May 21, 1977 edition. The full Hot 100 is on page 76 (but well past the pull-out section that takes up much of the magazine). A story on page 1 shows just how much the record industry had grown by 1977: the Gold standard that once defined hit records had become passe long before that, but even platinum wasn't considered all that impressive with certain artists. Most of the issue, however, is devoted to a celebration of the first 100 years of recorded music that is of interest to anybody who follows the history of popular music and the progress of recorded sound.

Wolfgang's Vault - Bonnie Raitt Memorabilia

Barbra Streisand- "My Heart Belongs to Me" Barbra Streisand - Superman - My Heart Belongs to Me

(Debuted #52, Peaked #4, 17 Weeks on chart)

After "Evergreen (Theme from A Star is Born)" became a smash hit, Barbra Streisand (or more likely, her record company Columbia) didn't try to milk more singles from her successful film. Instead, she followed it up with a tune that was ultimately left out of that film. "My Heart Belongs to Me" was taken from her upcoming Streisand Superman LP and was that album's only hit single. In addition to its #4 peak on the pop chart, the song logged four weeks at #1 on the adult contemporary chart.

Written by Alan Gordon, who also wrote "Happy Together" for The Turtles and Three Dog Night's "Celebrate," the song was a slow, soaring vocal exercise that showed off Streisand's range. Backed by an orchestra and soul-influenced backing singers, it was a tune that showcased her talents nicely. It's also a song where a listener's opinion depends heavily on that person's opinion of the singer herself. Babs' fans generally love it, but those who really don't care for her won't stick around to hear it. It was, in any case, a song more suited for the adult contemporary audience than the disco-mad, hook-hungry pop audience, which is why it was a much bigger hit there.

The Carpenters - "All You Get From Love Is A Love Song"  Carpenters - The Carpenters: The Singles 1969-1981 - All You Get from Love Is a Love Song

(Debuted #77, Peaked #35, 10 Weeks on chart)

Despite declining pop chart fortunes by 1977, The Carpenters were still hitting the adult contemporary charts fairly regularly. While "All You Get from Love is a Love Song" was stopped in the lower reaches of the Top 40, it was a #4 AC hit. The irony of their declining chart fortunes was that the siblings were actually beginning to venture into new territory with their work rather than becoming the predictable act many of their detractors claim they were.

As always, the song spotlighted Karen Carpenter's wonderful voice and backed her and brother Richard up with with top-notch studio musicians. While beginning slowly, the song's chorus is more upbeat than many of the duo's better-known songs. A superb saxophone solo by Tom Scott highlights the "middle eight." The song was included on their LP Passage (which wasn't released until October '77, five months after this single), which sought new directions but ended up becoming their first album to miss becoming Gold. Its other two singles were "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," an obvious attempt to capitalize on the sci-fi craze that Star Wars ushered in, and "Sweet, Sweet Smile" which was a Top 10 country hit. Those songs had more diversity of sound than any three Carpenters hits, but it didn't seem to help them find a new audience.

Jackson Browne - "The Pretender" Jackson Browne - The Pretender - The Pretender

(Debuted #81, Peaked #58, 5 Weeks on chart)

Jackson Browne spent much of the 1970s as a critical darling but didn't have a great deal of success with the singles charts. That might be because his compositions were more directed to an audience that bought his albums than those who listened to radio, as his LPs sold well. However, during the 1970s Browne's only Top 10 single was "Doctor My Eyes" (reviewed here in March), his first chart single. As for "The Pretender," despite being one of Browne's better-known songs, it failed to make the Top 40.

Most of Browne's early LPs contained a final song that summed up what was going on in his world as he was cutting those records, and that final song from The Pretender was the title song. While the lyrics tell about how Browne is realizing he is growing older and his responsibilities have begun to crowd out the ideals of his youth, it may be a corollary to what many children of the 1960s begun to realize once they quit railing against the Establishment and actually went out into the world: "Caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender" and realizing that it's useless to resist the way it is.

During the recording of the album, Browne's wife committed suicide. Such a tragic event was certain to affect his outlook on life, and at the end of "The Pretender," the protagonist has thrown in the towel: "Say a prayer for the pretender...who started out so young and strong, only to surrender."

Bonnie Raitt - "Runaway" Bonnie Raitt - Sweet Forgiveness (Remastered) - Runaway

(Debuted #84, Peaked #57, 12 Weeks on chart)

Following Jackson Browne is Bonnie Raitt, who joined him not only in the No Nukes concert series of 1979 but the anti-Apartheid song "Sun City" in 1985. Speaking of the No Nukes concerts, Raitt sings "Runaway" in the film taken from their Madison Square Garden show.

While this R&B-infused cover of Del Shannon's 1961 smash was Bonnie Raitt's first chart single, she was no newcomer to the music business. Since 1971, she had been touring and recording but her favored status among critics and other musicians didn't translate into record sales. While Shannon's classic followed the time-honored musical tradition of break-up songs, Raitt's perspective as the female whose man has walked away gives the song a different spin. Ironically, when "Runaway" finally gave Raitt a hit, the ever-fickle critics gave her performance a drubbing. Undaunted, Raitt soldiered on (sometimes in obscurity) through good times and very, very bad ones until her well-deserved breakthrough in 1989.

Bad Company - "Burnin' Sky" Bad Company - Burnin' Sky - Burnin' Sky

(Debuted #86, Peaked #78, 4 Weeks on chart)

After three big albums and 5 Top 40 singles, "Burnin' Sky" was something of a bump in the road for the group. Not only did the LP with that name become the band's first to miss the Top 5 or go platinum, the single would be the group's lowest-charting hit of the 1970s. Perhaps the band recorded it too quickly; once recorded during the Summer of '76, the LP needed to be shelved for several months to avoid impacting their previous set Run With the Pack.

The single "Burnin' Sky" had all of the elements of Bad Company's big hits: Paul Rodgers' distinctive vocal style, Mich Ralphs' guitar phrasing and a steady chug from the drum/bass rhythm section. However, there wasn't the urgency or toughness that marked songs like "Can't Get Enough" or "Feel Like Makin' Love." The band must have paid attention to the results. It would be two more years before their next LP Desolation Angels, which had a retooled sound and added synthesizers and even some strings to the instrument selection.

Kris Kristofferson - "Watch Closely Now" Barbra Streisand & Kris Kristofferson - A Star Is Born - Watch Closely Now

(Debuted #87, Peaked #52, 6 Weeks on chart)

Several months ago, I reviewed Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen" in this blog and mentioned the fact that although Kris Kristofferson made his name as a songwriter, he didn't write any of the songs he performed in the 1976 film A Star is Born. Singing as his character John Norman Howard, "Watch Closely Now" was the first song on the soundtrack LP. For those who haven't watched the film, Kristofferson did a very believable job playing the doomed rock star (it's been rumored that he was in varying states of chemical influence during the filming, so maybe he wasn't exactly acting as much as living out the part), but the song reiterates that Kristofferson was far better as a songwriter than a singer.

However, that may be the point of the song in the film. As John Norman Howard's "theme song" it really doesn't paint a tidy picture of the man. Considering his character in the movie was declining even as he was still a fan favorite, his performances of the song in the movie tend to show how much he's caught up in the excess of his fame. But then still shows that Kristofferson was a better actor than he was a singer.

10cc - "People In Love"  10cc - The Very Best of 10cc - People In Love

(Debuted #89, Peaked #40, 7 Weeks on chart)

When Kevin Godley and Lol Creme left 10cc in 1976 after some acrimony arising from a separate project they were working on, Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman opted to continue the group without them. Even though the British press referred to the new lineup as "5cc," the remaining members felt vindicated when "People in Love" became their second American Top 40 hit after the break (the four-member lineup only had one Top 40 hit, "I'm Not in Love").

While 10cc's earlier work was often noted for its quirky humor and antics, "People in Love" is actually a straight ballad, backed by a string arrangement and containing a very good electric guitar solo by Stewart. Though a refreshing change of pace, it wasn't necessarily essential. Yes it made the Top 40, but that's exactly as far as it went.

Teddy Pendergrass - "I Don't Love You Anymore"  Teddy Pendergrass - Teddy Pendergrass - I Don't Love You Anymore

(Debuted #90, Peaked #41, 14 Weeks on chart )

After spending several years as the voice for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass struck out on his own in 1977. Apparently, Pendergrass suggested naming the group after himself since he was the voice and Melvin didn't exactly agree. His first solo single was "I Don't Love You Anymore," which missed the pop Top 40 but went to #5 on the R&B chart. While Pendergrass was successful on the R&B charts as a solo artist, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes never quite got over his departure.

While "I Don't Love You Anymore" sounds very much like it was recorded with his former band, the fact that Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff (who produced all the Blue Notes' big hits) lent their unique Philadelphia-bred style to the song suggests that the duo hoped fans would realize that Pendergrass wasn't exactly a newcomer. A song about leaving a bad relationship (but still saying he'd "man up" and take care of his obligations...though the listener must decide whether he means alimony, child support or both), the uptempo rhythm helps take some of the sting off the pain. As later singles ventured into soul/Quiet Storm territory, it was clear that the public knew he was one of a kind.

Despite being paralyzed in a 1982 car crash that affected his ability to work the stage the way he did before, he still performed until retiring from the business in 2006. Sadly, Teddy Pendergrass passed away this January.

Stephen Bishop - "On And On"  Stephen Bishop - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Stephen Bishop - On and On

(Debuted #92, Peaked #11, 27 Weeks on chart )

In 1978, there was a skit on Saturday Night Live showing a line of people waiting to get into a disco (though not named, it was modeled after Studio 54). John Belushi played a bouncer keeping people out. At one point, Stephen Bishop comes up and tells him he should be allowed in because he has a hit single. When asked how the song goes, he begins singing the opening lines of "On and On." Suddenly, Belushi says, "yeah, I hate that song" and tosses him out.

"On and On" was a  song that had charted at #93 for a week and then fell off the Billboard Hot 100. Returning for its second chance, it stayed for more than half a year. A song about lovers with broken hearts who go to Jamaica to get away from their pain, the song has its share of imagery: "So he takes a ladder, steals some stars from the sky..." At #11 pop and #2 adult contemporary, it ended up being his biggest hit as a performer.

C.J. and Co. - "Devil's Gun" (Not available as MP3)

(Debuted #98, Peaked #36, 29 Weeks on chart)

Though the song only managed to reach the lower reaches of the Top 40, it stayed on the Hot 100 for more than half a year. Despite hanging on as long as it did, it only managed to reach the lower part of the Top 40. The longevity on the charts might have been helped by the fact that it had been mixed by Billboard Disco columnist Tom Moulton, but it should be noted that a lot of songs were spending longer on the charts than they had early in the decade. Besides, that would contradict the accusations some have leveled against then-Disco editor Bill Wardlow and his influence on the Hot 100 at that time.

CJ & Co. was a Detroit-based studio group created by Dennis Coffey (who had a hit 1971 with "Scorpio"). Coffey co-produced the group but was not a member, even though the guitar solo on "Devil's Gun" sounds like it could have been his handiwork. A song that builds from a bass/drum foundation to a full-on disco rhythm before the vocals appear, it was a huge dancefloor hit in many countries. In addition to going to 40 pop, the song was a #1 disco hit and #2 R&B. The extended version of the song (the one mixed by Moulton) still sounds great today and doesn't seem to run for more than seven minutes.

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