Saturday, January 29, 2011

This Week's Review -- January 27, 1979

There was considerable "firepower" in the thirteen debut singles hitting the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Eventually, eight of the songs would reach the Top 40, three would get into the Top 10 and one managed to reach #1. While it's clear that the era's disco craze was in full swing, there is a variety of sounds represented on the list. A crossover hit that was charted pop, country and adult contemporary is here, as well as a hit by a couple of British acts that seems to have been crafted specifically for American tastes. Two instrumental songs appear: one was a movie theme, while the other was a piano bit that was really catchy. Two songs by former folk singers who had gone on to pop success appear, as does a tune from a singer better known as the lead singer of The Four Seasons. A Motown cover that has been stripped of its substance is included, as is a song that epitomizes Neil Diamond's late 1970s sound. And then there's the disco juggernaut. The #1 song was a remake of a 1960s Stax hit, two hits by first-time artists appear and one song that isn't disco hit still uses the word "dancer" in its title.

The only real omission from that list is R&B, despite the two soul remakes. If it seems like the artists that may have embraced the genre were making disco records, it seems that was noticed at the time. In fact, an article in the January 27, 1979 edition mentions this. The full Hot 100 list can be found on Page 106. A couple of sad notes: several pages note the passing of  Mushroom Records head Shelly Siegel (including one by the members of Heart, who had been involved in  a lawsuit against his label) and an article on page 105 mentions the funeral service for Donny Hathaway, who jumped from the window of a hotel where he was staying. A simple tribute to Hathaway also appears on Page 7.


Anne Murray - "I Just Fall In Love Again" I Just Fall In Love Again - New Kind of Feeling

(Debuted #57, Peaked #12, 16 Weeks on chart)

Here's a song that was performed by two of my favorite female vocalists of the decade.

"I Just Fall in Love Again" had appeared on The Carpenters' LP Passages in 1977. Though it was a very well-received track and made a great vehicle for Karen Carpenter's voice, A&M decided not to issue the song as a single. That was unfortunate for The Carpenters, who definitely could have had a decent hit with the song, but it was fortunate for Anne Murray, who covered the song and had a crossover hit with it.

In addition to being a #12 pop hit, "I Just Fall in Love Again" was a #1 adult contemporary and country hit, and topped the chart in Canada as well. Beginning with a piano solo and accompanied by strings in addition to the steel guitar you'd expect from a Nashville production, Anne Murray's voice is the featured attraction. As usual with her hits, she performs the song with her usual grace and seemingly effortless magnificence.

Al Stewart - "Song On The Radio" Song On the Radio - Al Stewart: Greatest Hits

(Debuted #60, Peaked #29, 9 Weeks on chart)

Al Stewart cartainly had a knack for letting his songs run. On the LP Time Passages, "Song On the Radio" runs for more than six minutes. The single version gets two minutes edited off, which may seem harsh -- a third of the song -- but still leaves more than four minutes, which was still longer than some radio stations felt comfortable airing.

Ironically, the song happens to mention radio in its title. I'm not sure if it's a way of enticing DJs to play the song, though, because the lyrics aren't about radio at all. Instead, he's thinking about a woman as he's driving through a desolate area. He thinks about the first time he saw her, her quirky nature and her sometimes dim outlook on life. Yet he's still thinking about her. It's a case where a person is alone, with nobody to talk to except his own thoughts.

In what was becoming a staple of Stewart's hit singles, it featured Phil Kenzie on saxophone. However, rather than simply blowing a solo in the instrumental bridge, he's allowed to wail throughout the song, trailing the lyrics in the same manner this woman's memory is following the narrator.

Neil Diamond - "Forever In Blue Jeans" Forever In Blue Jeans - You Don't Bring Me Flowers

(Debuted #66, Peaked #20, 11 Weeks on chart)

"Forever in Blue Jeans" is one of Neil Diamond's better-remembered tunes from his easy-listening, laid-back late-1970s era, as well as the epitome of that sound. However, the words have a meaning beyond the music (which is a sonically pleasing mix designed to placate his "middle of the road" audience base). The lyrics themselves are about savoring the important things in life. That's it...there's no deep meaning to the words, just another way of saying money can't buy lasting love and happiness.

Though I'm certain several of Diamond's female fans would have loved to see if his money could have made them happy.

Eric Carmen - "Baby, I Need Your Lovin'" Baby I Need Your Lovin' - Change of Heart

(Debuted #75, Peaked #62, 5 Weeks on chart)

"Baby, I Need Your Lovin'" was a great song from Motown's golden era. Written by Holland/Dozier/Holland, it was originally a hit in 1964 for The Four Tops, and again in 1967 for Johnny Rivers. It has also been recorded many times over the years.

That capable as Eric Carmen could be with a pop song, this rendition isn't going to make anybody forget either of those earlier hit versions. He gets the words right but the rendition is lacking any of its original soul. The color-by-numbers arrangement is antiseptic and the production is capable but proves once again that technical precision doesn't always rescue a project. Fortunately, the backup singers add something to the song; however, when the backing chorus is more interesting that the lead vocal, that doesn't say much for the song.

Eddie Money - "Maybe I'm A Fool" Maybe I'm a Fool - Life for the Taking

(Debuted #81, Peaked #22, 13 Weeks on chart)

Is that really Eddie Money doing a light disco song? It was 1979, so why not latch on to the bandwagon along with so many other artists? Considering the Kinks, the Stones and even Kiss were placing dance beats on their singles, it was probably considered safe to turn to the "Dark Side" when he released the first single from his Life For the Taking LP.

That said, there's a really good saxophone solo in the instrumental bridge, and Money sings in a similar style as he does on many of his other mid-tempo tunes. So the disco-ish sound can likely be blamed on his producer or label as a knee-jerk reaction to audience tastes, even though it isn't embarrassingly the blatant "cash-in" attempts done by other artists (Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney) at the time. In all, it's a good little song that has weathered the years well.

Frank Mills - "Music Box Dancer" Music Box Dancer - Music Box Dancer

(Debuted #84, Peaked #3, 20 Weeks on chart)

Canadian-born Frank Mills was a member of The Bells but left the group before their 1971 hit "Stay Awhile." Despite missing out on a hit single, he got his chance with this piano instrumental that sounded like music from a wind-up music box. However, "Music Box Dancer" -- so omnipresent in 1979 -- actually took several years to become a hit song.

The song was originally recorded in 1974 but not made into a single until years later. In fact, "Music Box Dancer" was merely resurrected to fill a need, which was to serve as the B-side for another Mills single. According to the legend, a few stations discovered that the bit worked as a music bed that could be used for things like PSA announcements and the outro themes to newscasts. Eventually, the requests for the song caused the single to be changed: "Music Box Dancer" was now the A-side.

And I'm guessing that the radio stations were likely deluged with calls from listeners wanting to know what that song was. In my old days as a radio DJ, I'd occasionally get a call about a song that was played several hours before by a different jock (including one who often brought his own records) and caught flak if I didn't know right away. I can imagine some poor radio part-timer working early on Sunday getting a call about the song that was on the pre-recorded public affairs show he just played but didn't have any part in producing.

Amii Stewart - "Knock On Wood" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #85, Peaked #1, 20 Weeks on chart)

For those who were old enough to know better in 1979, seeing the video above may cause certain pangs of "why did we ever do that?" guilt, but certain 1970s style (and I'm talking about video editing as well as hair/dress) is ubiquitous when you look at a blog like this one that covers the decade. It may be easier to dismiss as a consequence of heavy substance abuse, but that excuse can only go so far. As for Amii Stewart, she may have been embarrassed by that outfit by the time 1980 rolled around.

Originally a hit for Eddie Floyd in 1966, the Stax soul song was remade as a disco song at the peak of the Disco Era. Featuring as many disco hooks as could be tossed into the song, the production overshadows Stewart's capable vocals. But that's how disco was: the performance was secondary to the groove. The song was a #1 smash and a million-seller. However, the association with disco would prove to be a negative thing for Stewart's career. She had another low-charting hit on the Hot 100, but the disco backlash essentially banished her to the dance charts and Europe after that.

John Williams - "Theme From Superman (Main Title)"

(Debuted #86, Peaked #81, 4 Weeks on chart)

Once Star Wars brought back the action-adventure film loaded with special effects,  it was only a matter of time before a film was made that featured a comic book superhero. Thus, Superman: The Movie appeared on the silver screen late in 1978 and the theme song was composed by John Williams, the man who had done the score for Star Wars. Similarly, Williams collaborated with the London Symphony Orchestra once more to perform it, and the music was a major part of the film's experience.

In a way, orchestral movie music was Classical music for those who considered themselves too "cool" for Classical music in a similar way Looney Tunes cartoons had done a generation before. I'm guessing there were several movie fans who inadvertently became listeners (whether casual or otherwise) of classical thanks to the work of John Williams over the years. Even if they never admitted it to anybody else.

Cat Stevens - "Bad Brakes" Bad Brakes - Back to Earth

(Debuted #87, Peaked #83, 4 Weeks on chart)

"Bad Brakes" was the last entry on the Hot 100 for Cat Stevens, who had already undergone a conversion to Islam and began to look at interests beyond the music industry. He had wanted to retire from performing but still owed one more album to his record company, which ended up being Back to Earth.

Co-written with guitarist Alun Davies, "Bad Brakes" was listed as "Bad Breaks" during its entire four-week run on the Hot 100 and is sometimes listed that way by chart compilers. In any case, the connection between faulty brakes on a car and the slangy "bad breaks" is addressed in the lyrics. Though not one of Stevens' more memorable 1970s hits, it wasn't all that bad for a song recorded for an album that was solely a contractual obligation.

Bell and James - "Livin' It Up (Friday Night)" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #88, Peaked #15, 16 Weeks on chart)

Leroy Bell and Casey James were from Philadelphia and had played in Special Blend, a studio disco group that recorded instrumentals and backing tracks for vocal groups. Bell was also the nephew of producer Thom Bell and was able to get signed to his uncle's company as a songwriter. After the duo penned songs for several artists, they were signed to their own contract as performers.

"Livin' it Up (Friday Night) " would be the only pop hit for Bell & James. It was an uptempo number that was definitely helped by disco with its "going out to party" vibe. The lyrics don't mention dancing at all, though, just breaking free of the routine after working all week long. At the time, many were choosing to do that at dance clubs, where songs like "Livin' it Up" were playing. Despite being lumped into the majority of disco tunes when the sound was declared passe, it really wasn't fairly treated in that respect. The concept of breaking away after the work week is over is just as valid today as it was in 1979.

Suzi Quatro and Chris Norman -  "Stumblin' In"  Stumblin' In - Suzi Quatro: Greatest Hits

(Debuted #89, Peaked #4, 22 Weeks on chart)

Suzi Quatro was an Michigander who moved to England in 1971 and gained a degree of success there she could never achieve at home. If anything, she's better known on this side of the Atlantic for her role as Leather Tuscadero on the TV show Happy Days. Chris Norman was the lead singer of Smokie, a British group whose best-known single in the U.S. was "Living Next Door to Alice" (reviewed here last December). Both acts were under the tutelage of writer/producer team Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, who came up with a duet for them to record. The result would be the biggest U.S. hit for either singer, even as it narrowly missed the Top 40 over in the U.K.

At the time, Mike Chapman was perhaps the hottest producer in the business. Between 1978 and 1979, he was responsible for several American #1 singles including "Kiss You All Over," "Hot Child in the City," "My Sharona" and "Heart of Glass." Similarly, the single was released on the RSO label, which had been a powerhouse label largely due to The Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Those two factors likely contributed to the song's chart fortunes, but it was a well-crafted pop song that would have probably hit anyway despite its pedigree.

"Stumblin' In" was a departure from Quatro's signature hard-edged sound. In a way, its easy laid-back beat and lyrics about finding love unexpectedly was well-suited for the Southern California-style rock that was such a big seller in the late 1970s.

Frankie Valli - "Fancy Dancer" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #90, Peaked #77, 4 Weeks on chart)

In 1979, a song having the word "Dancer" in the title could be reasonably assumed to have a disco beat, especially if the singer had just had a #1 hit like "Grease." However, "Fancy Dancer" was a slower song than one may expect.

There had been a Top 40 single called "Fancy Dancer" by the Commodores in 1977, but this is a different song altogether. Where that song had been driven by light funk and R&B, nobody would have expected that type of performance by the former Four Seasons frontman. Instead, this "Fancy Dancer" is more of a wistful remembrance of a lady from the past -- a dancing girl, perhaps a working one --that the singer still thinks highly of after several years.

Spending most of the song singing at his normal vocal range and featuring a female backing chorus, the song features a couple of moments of Valli reminding listeners that he can handle a higher register as well. Now...that is something people expect from him.

Tasha Thomas - "Shoot Me (With Your Love)" Shoot Me (With Your Love) - Midnight Rendezvous

(Debuted #97, Peaked #91, 5 Weeks on chart)

Tasha Thomas is largely forgotten due to factors beyond her own control. She made her first big impression in the Broadway production of  The Wiz, playing Auntie Em. While "Shoot Me" would be her only Hot 100 listing, it's a good disco song even if she did get caught up in the backlash against many disco artists that occurred shortly after the song was a hit. She could have been able to sustain a long career doing R&B/dance numbers like many former disco artists did in the 1980s, but fate sadly had a different path for her. In 1984, she died of cancer.

After showing her versatility on stage, the Alaska-born Thomas was given the chance to record her debut LP Midnight Rendezvous. Predictably, the music was disco-flavored due to the musical tastes of the day. With a title perfect for Valentine's Day, "Shoot Me (With Your Love)" was a dose of adrenaline that probably deserved a bigger shot -- pun intended -- that it eventually had. Vacillating between a breathy whisper and a full-throated vocal, Thomas gives her all in the performance. At the same time, the music accompaniment gives more than the standard disco arrangement. The brass section accentuates the words well and the bass line stands out nicely.

In a way, her voice sounds well-suited to the synthesized funk rhythms that dominated the R&B charts for much of the 1980s. It's unfortunate that Tasha Thomas fell ill before recording a follow-up; her early exit combined with her potential talent make her a great "what could have been" story.

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy these, especially the way you give each song a fair shake. keep up the good work!