Saturday, December 25, 2010

This Week's Review -- December 24, 1977

For those readers who celebrate the holiday, I wish you a Merry Christmas. Since this blog doesn't take holidays, feel free to check out this week's post while you enjoy your day off. This is the 52nd entry of 2010 for this blog, and with one post a week, it just shows that I've been able to get this out consistently. I intend to keep it up for 2011, but please feel free let others know if you like this blog. I'd love to see more readers stop by here.

Only six new singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with two that would eventually break into the Top 40. The two Top 40 hits are pretty familiar to pop music fans of the day: one was the theme song from one of that year's more popular films and the other was a single from a group that was likely at the pinnacle of its overwhelming popularity. However, the ones that missed are somewhat familiar, too. One was a #1 country smash, another was a remake of a #5 hit from 1964, one was more of the same from an artist who once fronted Raspberries, and another was the one hit by a group whose name appeared a quarter-century later in a film.

Several past issues of Billboard are available over at the Google Books archive, including the December 24, 1977 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on Page 150. Since it's the special year-end double issue, the magazine features a lengthy recap of the year's top performers: singles, artists, labels, producers, etc...and in all the formats. Some big omissions appear among the "best of" lists, though, due to the publication's necessary cut-off date to prepare all of its yearly info. As a result of the cutoff date, "You Light Up My Life" (a song that had just spent 10 weeks on top of the singles chart) is missing, as is the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Instead, the #1 song of 1977 is listed as Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," a song that is generally grouped in with 1976 singles by those of us who use a Jan.1-Dec. 31 timeframe. Despite those obvious omissions that were necessary to get the data out in time, it gives a nice big picture about the year that was.


Stillwater - "Mind Bender" Mind Bender - Southern Rock Gold

(Debuted #79, Peaked #46, 10 Weeks on chart)

Those who've seen the movie Almost Famous remember that the band William Miller followed on tour was called Stillwater. However, the band Miller's character followed was a fictitious amalgamation of real bands director Cameron Crowe covered as a Rolling Stone writer in the early 1970s. There was a real Stillwater, though, and they were a southern rock band from Warner-Robbins, Georgia.

"Mindbender" was a straight-ahead, guitar-based, blues-influenced rock tune. It featured a vocal fed through a guitar box (like on Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like I Do") that gave it a distinctive feel.

This was a second chance for "Mindbender"after a three-week run on the Hot 100 in November. This time, it would get farther up the chart and almost make the Top 40. Unfortunately, it would be the only song Stillwater would take into the Hot 100.

John Williams - "Theme From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

(Debuted #81, Peaked #13, 14 Weeks on chart)

Like Star Wars, there was a chart battle between John Williams's original composition and a cover version by producer Meco Monardo. In 1977, Meco took a discofied version of the Star Wars theme to #1 while Williams -- fronting the London Symphony Orchestra -- stalled at #10. This time around, Meco's version (reviewed here nearly a year ago) lost the race.

One thing Williams brought to the song that Meco didn't was the authenticity gained from the fact he was the composer; the gimmicky electronic sound effects used in the cover weren't needed. Of course, Williams' version employs the five-tone signal that figures so prominently in the film. In fact, that five-note line is given several variations in the theme song. There is also a playful back-and-forth interaction in the bridge that has several instruments "communicating" with each other the way the humans and aliens did in the film with that signal.

In my opinion, the difference between John Williams' and Meco's versions are fairly wide, and the original versions were highly superior than the hastily remade, disco-laden covers. This time, the difference was recognized by the radio stations, the record-buying public and the charts.

ABBA - "The Name Of The Game" The Name of the Game - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of ABBA

(Debuted #82, Peaked #12, 16 Weeks on chart)

After a string of hit singles that were certain to cause insulin shock due to their high content of pop-flavored sugar and syrup, ABBA tried something a little different when they recorded "The Name of the Game." Trying to break the Europop mold they managed to perfect, the band's creative braintrust assimilated other sounds into their next album.

In the case of "The Name of the Game," the bass/synthesizer opening was inspired by Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" and the vocals were a little more multi-layered than what the band usually released. Unfortunately, when it came to listeners, ABBA's fans were more into the ear candy the group usually released than they were into maturity and the song wasn't quite the hit the group's earlier singles had been.

Released in advance of the LP ABBA: The Album, "The Name of the Game" would sputter out before hitting the Top 10 in the U.S. (though it was a #1 single across Europe). Undaunted, the group's next single would be "Take a Chance on Me," which was a return to the well-crafted pop songs that were than band's bread and butter and took them back into the Top 10.

Johnny Rivers - "Curious Mind" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #85, Peaked #41, 10 Weeks on chart)

After a string of decent hits in the 1960s and a moderate track record in the 70s, Johnny Rivers' last chart hit came in 1977 with "Curious Mind." Written by Curtis Mayfield and originally called "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um," the song was a #5 hit in 1964 for Major Lance. The song was retitled when Johnny Rivers re-recorded it, though there isn't really anything to explain why. The words "curious mind" are only in the song in one place, while "um, um, um, um, um, um" make up the chorus and a very significant part of the song. Perhaps Rivers intended his version to stand on its own when he released it; however, his version is a lower-key remake of a fine 1960s Chicago soul song.

Ronnie Milsap - "What A Difference You've Made In My Life" What a Difference You've Made In My Life - The Essential Ronnie Milsap

(Debuted #87, Peaked #80, 5 Weeks on chart)

One of my favorite things about country music is the way the lyrics of some songs have double meanings. While many critics will unfairly dismiss the entire form as music for ignorant hillbillies, the people who make their living writing for that genre are often very salient and clever wordsmiths. In the case of "What a Difference You've Made in My Life," there person being appreciated can either be a woman, or more likely, it's a thinly veiled ode to a deity.

While the song never comes out and says so, the gospel-like performance Ronnie Milsap delivers toward the end and the female gospel chorus that backs him pretty much nails the point. The beginning of the song features two pianos. Milsap plays one, and the song's writer Archie Jordan plays the other. Despite its short stay in the Hot 100, "What a Difference You've Made in My Life" would be a #1 country hit. It was also sung by teenage singer Amy Grant on her first contemporary Christian album.

Milsap wasn't yet a solid crossover star (he would enjoy that status in the early 1980s), but this song helped push him in that direction.

Eric Carmen - "Boats Against The Current" Boats Against the Current - Boats Against the Current

(Debuted #90, Peaked #88, 3 Weeks on chart)

After beginning his post-Raspberries solo career with two Top 10 singles, Eric Carmen's subsequent singles failed to match the potential. "Boats Against the Current" -- the title song from Carmen's 1977 LP -- would be his first solo hit to miss the Top 40.

Employing more of the "adult" sound he featured in his solo material, "Boats Against the Current" was a slow song accented with strings, piano and emotional phrasing. In a way, it was a low-key continuation of "All By Myself" without the histrionic vocals or precisely-timed false ending. Or, trying to channel "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" without the hopeful backing music to help ease the pain.

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