Saturday, July 10, 2010

This Week's Review --  July 10, 1976

Though only seven new songs debut this week, some had staying power. Three would go on to make the Top 40, with two of those reaching the Top Ten and one going all the way to #1. Four of the artists were coming off major hits and were looking to capitalize on them. Another act was still riding a formula that had sold them millions of records. Two of the songs have a historical/retro sounds like The Beach Boys stopped by the studio and another tells the story of a drug dealer's downfall. In perfect tune with the season, among the new entries are a song called "Summer" as well as a singer whose last name is Summer.

While many past editions of Billboard magazine are free to read at Google Books, the July 10, 1976 issue is missing from the archive.

Wolfgang's Vault - Bargain Bin

KC & the Sunshine Band - "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" KC & The Sunshine Band - KC & the Sunshine Band - Part 3... And More - (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty

(Debuted #79, Peaked #1, 21 Weeks on chart)

Following a similar formula that took "Get Down Tonight" and "That's the Way (I Like it)" to #1, Harry Wayne Casey (KC) and Richard Finch once again went to the well and crafted a song that sounds a lot like both of those tunes. Going for the "hat trick," they notched their third #1 song in just over a year.

In an interview, Finch stated that they were watching the people as they were performing. While dancing to the music, sometimes they'd start bumping their butts together and other times they just shook their tails. That observation led to the lyrics of "Shake Your Booty," while the band's signature sound was able to provide the musical backdrop to the words.

Trivial note: During the 1970s, "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" is the song with the most repeated word in its title among 1970s #1 hits. Among all the decade's hits, it's only exceeded by ABBA's "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do."

War - "Summer" War - The Very Best of War - Summer

(Debuted #80, Peaked #7, 16 Weeks on chart)

Nothing like a song that evokes a season. And it's even better when that song hits the radio right in the middle of that season. When creating the song, War's producer Jerry Goldstein and several group members would reflect upon the summers of their childhoods, from Goldstein's in Brooklyn to the others' in Los Angeles. The music is laid-back, evoking a time before jobs and responsibilities, when summertime meant school was out and it was time to hang out with friends.

"Summer" was a new track recorded for the band's 1976 Greatest Hits LP. While it's common today for new tracks to be added to "Best-of" compilations as a way of enticing fans to buy a record they would otherwise ignore, but the concept was a little new in 1976. Before that, the sets were usually a collection of singles which sometimes didn't get released in LP form or better-known cuts. However, the rise of the LP meant that acts who released singles from their album releases meant that sometimes fans who already owned all the band's LPs weren't likely to buy the collection if they already had all the songs on it. In War's case, "Summer" became a Top 10 hit and definitely sold some copies of Greatest Hits.

The Bellamy Brothers - "Hell Cat" (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #84, Peaked #70, 3 Weeks on chart)

The Florida-bred Bellamy Brothers are better remembered today as a successful country act than for their pop hits, despite the fact that their best-known hit "Let Your Love Flow" was a pop #1 and only a moderate country hit. In fact, their country focus really wasn't evident until later in the 1970s. In 1976, they were following up their #1 smash with "Hell Cat," a song that would work today as a country hit but missed that chart entirely as it floundered on the Hot 100.

The "Hell Cat" in the song's lyrics is a lady who's being treated bad at home and ready to prowl. A straightforward tune with the basic guitars, bass and drums, it's a song that shows just how far country music has progressed: it was considered too pop at a time when guys like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were riding high, but would have fit right in a decade or so later. Ironically, when the country crossover rush kicked into high gear later in the decade, The Bellamy Brothers would become a straight country act rather than feeling the need to straddle both genres the way Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt and Ronnie Milsap did.

Henry Gross - "Springtime Mama" (Not Available as MP3)

(Debuted #85, Peaked #37, 10 Weeks on chart)

Brooklyn-born Henry Gross was the original guitarist for the retro group Sha Na Na but perhaps best known for "Shannon," a song about a dog that had gone on to The Great Big Meadow in the Sky. "Springtime Mama" was the follow-up to that Top 10 smash and likely earned its Top 40 status to the boost "Shannon" provided. A song that featured Gross's high register voice, playful guitar-and-piano interaction and a doo-wop-style backing chorus that may have reminded listeners of his former bandmates sitting in with The Beach Boys, the song was a nod to his retro sensibilities yet still grounded in the Seventies. It was a nice fit for the audience that was enjoying 1950s reminisces like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Grease.

Steely Dan - "Kid Charlemagne" Steely Dan - The Royal Scam - Kid Charlemagne

(Debuted #87, Peaked #82, 3 Weeks on chart)

While writing these reviews, I write what comes to mind but sometimes find it's hard to know what comes across to readers. If anything, I hope it's evident that I'm a history buff as well as a music fan. Sometimes while giving my point of view of a song, I like to try and place it in the historical context of whatever era led to its creation.While many songs from the 1970s covered things like war, the dark side of politics, social movements, energy issues and other topics of the day, a few tunes appeared that spoke to underlying things that weren't always sunny or easily dealt with. One of those topics was drugs. Although many songs dealing with illicit substances during the 1970s were light and humorous (see Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show) and others were warnings (see James Brown's "King Heroin"), "Kid Charlemagne" is a straightforward narrative that was neither overtly pro- nor anti-drug.

Like many of the characters described in the songs of Steely Dan's LP The Royal Scam, "the protagonist of "Kid Charlemagne" was shady. In this case, he was a drug dealer and chemist known for high-grade stuff. The story begins in San Francisco, where his self-made "kitchen clean" merchandise made him a local celebrity. From the clues given, fans have claimed the song was written about Owsley Stanley or a member of the "merry pranksters" in the Haight scene during the Hippie era, but Steely Dan's lyrics are usually purposely abstract and it's hard to know if it was intended for anybody specific. As the song goes on, his customers slowly leave him -- some are dead, others have "joined the human race" -- and his fortunes are lagging while it seems The Fuzz is watching (but I haven't figured whether that part is merely paranoia). At the end, the dealer is getting rid of his evidence as a bust is nearing and planning his getaway ("Is there gas in the car? Yes, there's gas in the car").

As expected, songs about drugs performed in a serious manner but not as a warning against their effects don't do well on radio. Programmers often avoid them as a way of playing it safe, while parents get nervous about discussing the topic with their kids. Ironically, a country that likes to trumpet its freedom of speech and expression is content to look the other way and hope certain topics just go away by themselves. As it turned out, "Kid Charlemagne" had a very short chart life.

However, there is a bright spot in the song that rises above the lyrics. A terrific guitar solo by studio ace Larry Carlton stands out beginning after the second chorus.

Donna Summer - "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" Donna Summer - A Love Trilogy - Try Me, I Know We Can Make It

(Debuted #88, Peaked #80, 4 Weeks on chart)

Still trying to follow "Love to Love You Baby" but not yet riding the artistic wave that "I Feel Love" would build, Donna Summer was still seen as a novelty act by pop fans since her one shining moment to that point had been simulating orgasmic moans. Like "Love to Love You Baby," "Try Me, I Know We Can Make it" was a sensual vocal workout set to music. Also like the earlier hit, it covered one side of an LP (nearly 18 minutes, the entire first side of A Love Trilogy) but was condensed considerably for a single release (four minutes, 48 seconds).

Despite dropping off the pop charts quickly and barely reaching the R&B Top 40, "Try Me" would become Summer's second #1 disco hit. Due to disco's reputation as a fad by 1976, Donna Summer's reign as the Queen of Disco at that point made her a one-dimensional artist in the eyes of some listeners who saw many of the acts as faceless voices under a producer's control. While Summer may have been collaborating with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she would soon convince many fans that she was a star in her own right.

Bad Company - "Honey Child" Bad Company - Run With the Pack - Honey Child

(Debuted #89, Peaked #59, 6 Weeks on chart)

Formula. That's the best word to use when describing "Honey Child" and its LP Run With the Pack. Take Paul Rodgers's vocals, add Mick Ralphs's gritty lead guitar and back them up with a bass and drums and you have a Bad Company song. Even more to the point, write a song that isn't too stylistically different than one of the group's earlier hits; if fans bought millions of records before, they'll do it again, right?

In the case of "Honey Child," it sounded a lot like "Can't Get Enough." Lyrically, the song had a lot of repetition of the lines "Honey child, don't you know you drive me wild" and its two verses were short indeed: at first, the girl was 17 and too young to mess with, but when she was 21 there was no need to explain anything else. And Paul Rodgers didn't, just repeating the same lyrics over and over again.

Despite only having two chart singles from the album and only seeing one reach the Top 40, Bad Company was still banking on their formula. They recorded their next LP Burnin' Sky while Run With the Pack was still riding the album chart and sat on it for several months before releasing it. The results were disastrous.

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