Saturday, September 24, 2011

This Week's Review -- September 20, 1975

This is going to be a bigger task than usual this week. There were 16 Singles that debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 this week (one of which was double-sided), giving me 17 songs to review. That is more than twice last week's total; played all at once, there is 64 minutes' worth of music. Of those, nine ended up in the Top 40 and one reached the Top 10. Interestingly, the songs were all over the place stylistically. In fact, there are songs on the list that went to #1 on Billboard's R&B, country and adult contemporary charts, even though none topped the pop list. In between are folk, the signature tune from The Boss, songs influenced by a previous generation's 78 records and a song that has been eagerly embraced by Chicanos. For those who say that the mid-70s was a wasteland musically, this weeks' list might come as a refreshing surprise. It may have been hard to find a radio station that would play all of the songs here, but it's a reminder that there was more to the contemporary music scene than what its critics claim.

The September 20, 1975 edition of Billboard is missing from the archive at Google Books, so I'll once again shamelessly plug my other music-related blog, 80s Music Mayhem. Over there, the new posts arrive every weekday and each week features a different year. This past week's focus was 1989 and the songs featured included a "comeback" by Alice Cooper and a song that had George Harrison lending his distinct slide guitar to the instrumental bridge. Next week, the blog returns to 1980 once again.

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The Ohio Players - "Sweet Sticky Thing" Sweet Sticky Thing (Quad Mix) - Honey

(Debuted #64, Peaked #33, 8 Weeks on chart)

A mention of The Ohio Players usually brings up memories of funk-rooted hits and racy album covers. In the case of "Sweet Sticky Thing," the LP cover (titled, appropriately enough, Honey) still featured a naked model but the music was rooted in a spacey jazz mixed with some Quiet Storm and even a dash of New Age tossed in. It's quite a departure from the full-on funk that coursed through "Fire," "Love Rollercoaster" and "Who'd She Coo?"

In the midst of the sonic atmosphere is some great saxophone work from Clarence "Satch" Satchell throughout the song. It brushed into the lower reaches of the pop Top 40, but spent a week at the top of the R&B chart as well.

Bruce Springsteen - "Born to Run" Born to Run - Born to Run

(Debuted #68, Peaked #23, 11 Weeks on chart)

Sometimes a song is so well-known and highly regarded, I really can't add much to it. There's so much that has been written about "Born To Run" that it's really futile to try and add anything. In my own case, I was born too late to appreciate the song in its initial run; in fact, I was familiar with Born in the U.S.A. long before "Born to Run" ever popped up on my radar.

While I definitely understood the yearning that made the song's narrator look toward hitting the road on a motorcycle in my youth, what stands out now for me with the song is its bombast. It was almost as if Springsteen and producer Jon Landau wanted to channel the spirit of Phil Spector when they laid down the track. Plus, the saxophone solo gives me a moment to reflect on how much "The Big Man" Clarence Clemons is missed. Springsteen may be called "The Boss," but not when Clemons took center stage.

George Harrison - "You" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #75, Peaked #20, 10 Weeks on chart)

"You" is a track from George Harrison's Extra Texture LP, his "contractual obligation" album to finish up his time with Apple before beginning Dark Horse. Though infused with his unique self-deprecating sense of humor, it was one of Harrison's least favorite records. It took a long time to see a CD release and still isn't available digitally.

"You" was written in 1970 for Ronnie Spector to record, but she passed on it. At the time, Harrison was working with Phil Spector for his All Things Must Pass project. Without being used, the musical track was set aside and largely forgotten. However, with the need to get a final LP out for Apple, Harrison used the old backing track and recorded his lyrics. As a result, the song sounds like an outtake from that album (for good reason) even with the seemingly tossed-off lines.

Time has been kind to much of Harrison's solo material. Hopefully it won't be long before songs like "You" are more readily available for consumers.

Olivia Newton-John - "Something Better to Do" Something Better to Do - Gold: Olivia Newton-John

(Debuted #77, Peaked #13, 11 Weeks on chart)

"Something Better To Do" pretty much defines Olivia Newton-John's MOR period, which would see lower pop chart peaks through her starring role in Grease and less crossover success on the country chart. It did, however, spend three weeks at #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

The song features a sound that seems like it hearkens back to an earlier decade (its lead instrument is a clarinet, with a piano and sparse percussion) and her vocal sounds like she's doing a 1930s-era waltz. The lyrics weren't from a long-past era; they were written by Olivia's frequent collaborator John Farrar. The words express disappointment over the end of a relationship. It's a different tune than many might expect from her, designed to show her ability to adapt to different styles on record, but it may be too different for some.

War - "Low Rider" Low Rider - Why Can't We Be Friends?

(Debuted #78, Peaked #7, 15 Weeks on chart)

A celebration of the hot-rod, hydraulic-equipped "cruisin'" culture, "Low Rider" is a mix of rock, soul, funk, and Latin rhythms that capably reflected the multi-ethnic collective that was War. Over the years, it has come to be embraced by the Chicano culture, appearing in the opening credits of the 1978 Cheech & Chong film Up in Smoke and being used as an opening theme for George Lopez's 2002-'07 sitcom and his late-night talk show.

It's a very familiar song that has largely avoided the ignominy of the "worst of" lists that seem to be filled with 1970s music despite the fact that it gets an awful lot of exposure. Perhaps the fact that its tight groove and the easy roll of its smooth lyrics have lent a veneer to the song. Its laid-back groove has suited it well over the years and kept it from sounding like a 1975 artifact.

Melissa Manchester - "Just Too Many People" Just Too Many People - Melissa

(Debuted #79, Peaked #30, 12 Weeks on chart)

After the pop sheen Melissa Manchester gave to "Midnight Blue," the followup single may have seemed to be more upbeat, but it also showed another side to the singer that doesn't always come out in the material that gets played ("Don't Cry Out Loud," "Looking Through the Eyes of Love" and "You Should Hear How She Talks About You"). 

"Just Too Many People" was co-written by Manchester with producer Vini Poncia and is a forward-looking song, despite having a title that appears to be complaining. Basically, the message is that too many people are afraid to take the next step and we don't need to be two more of them. It's an interesting "let's take this to the next level" lyric.

B.J. Thomas - "Help Me Make It (To My Rockin' Chair)" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #81, Peaked #65, 9 Weeks on chart)

From a song about taking a relationship to the next level, here's a "grow old with me" song. It's an interesting choice to follow up after a hit like "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song," it missed the pop Top 40 and was a lesser hit on the country chart as well. However, on the adult contemporary chart (where the sentiment is more welcome), it was a #5 hit.

"Help Me Make it (To My Rockin' Chair" sounds like it could have been from the 1930s, with its piano intro and the mention of going to "the picture show." That seems to be a running theme with this week's songs.

Waylon Jennings - "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way - The Essential Waylon Jennings

(Debuted #82, Peaked #60, 9 Weeks on chart)

Thanks to a career that was cut short far too early, Hank Williams had one of the most significant "what if?" stories in musical history. He was only 29 years old when he died and left a very strong body of work as a songwriter, which has led to numerous discussions about what he could have done if he'd only had more time and maturity. Not only have his songs been recorded countless times over the years, he's been mentioned in country songs ever since. His music has been addressed in song ("Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life" by Moe Mandy), his ghost has made its appearance in song ("The Ride" by David Allan Coe and Alan Jackson's "Midnight in Montgomery") and "Are You Sure Hank Done it this Way" asks the question about what it takes to make it in Nashville.

"Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way" was a two-sided #1 country song (the flip side, "Bob Wills is Still the King," honored another country legend) and one of Waylon's best-known tunes.

Aretha Franklin - "Mr. D.J. (5 For the D.J.)" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #83, Peaked #53, 5 Weeks on chart)

Sometimes, artists feel the need to give appreciation to the radio disc jockeys to get their record played. That reflects the influence DJs once had in radio but have lost over the years as things like computer-controlled playlists, automation and other factors have come into play. While Arteha Franklin is praising a radio jockey in this song, the role of the DJ in her target audience was soon going to evolve and become a big deal at parties and clubs.

"Mr. D.J. (5 For the D.J.)" is an upbeat tune with a funky undercurrent. The "5" in the parentheses refers to a needed break -- as in "take five" -- but the lyrics keep imploring the poor guy to "hang on in there." Though not a Top 40 pop hit, it did reach #13 on the R&B chart.

B.T. Express - "Peace Pipe" Peace Pipe - Non-Stop b/w "Give it What You Got" Give It Whatcha Got - Non-Stop

(Debuted #85, Peaked #31, 18 Weeks on chart)


B.T. Express made a name for itself with funky tunes that were big on instrumentals but featuring sparse lyrics that were little more than chants of the title. "Peace Pipe" followed the format. The lyrics are pretty much "Put it in your peace pipe...smoke it all up," which reminds me of a high school buddy of mine who used to say "put that in your pipe and smoke it" whenever he made a point.

The flip side was "Give it What You Got," which actually has more lyrics and a more defined verse/chorus structure, but that song is more about funk rhythms and dance grooves than the "always do your best" advice in the lyrics.

The Manhattan Transfer - "Operator" Operator - The Very Best of the Manhattan Transfer

(Debuted #87, Peaked #22, 12 Weeks on chart)

The Manhattan transfer was a vocal group that drew its influences from the past. Big Band, jazz, barbershop harmonies, doo-wop, Dixieland, and more were likely to show up in their material.In the case of "Operator," the influence was gospel.

Using a telephone as a metaphor for talking to Jesus, "Operator" showcased the group's four-part harmonies and gave Laurel Masse a chance to show off her vocal skills. Part of the group's charms was the way they drew so often from the past, so their act was too eclectic for a wide audience, but familiar to those who remembered the original material. In a way, it's not much different from writing about 1970s music nearly four decades after the fact.

Joan Baez - "Diamonds And Rust" Diamonds and Rust - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Joan Baez

(Debuted #89, Peaked #35, 11 Weeks on chart)

I was torn between two different YouTube videos for this song. One had her performing it in concert and the other featured a recording of the album track. Normally, I'd go with the stage performance if it's from the same period as the song came out and was close to the single version. In the end, I went with the recorded version of the song so I could feature the accompaniment as well.

Joan Baez's final Top 40 hit was a reminiscence about her personal relationship with Bob Dylan in the 1960s. Affectionate but unsentimental, she sings with an intensity that wasn't matched by many of her fellow singer/songwriters circa 1975. Evidently brought about by a telephone call out of the blue, it was a recounting of random images from an old flame that has long burned out, with no "misty-eyed" nostalgia about what used to be. As a result, "Diamonds and Rust" is perhaps Baez's best performance on a single.

Buddy Miles - "Rockin' And Rollin' On The Streets Of Hollywood" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #94, Peaked #91, 3 Weeks on chart)

In 1975, Buddy Miles switched record labels again. He ended up signing with Casablanca, the home of the group Kiss and a label that would soon become known for its disco artists. The first cut from the first LP he recorded for Casablanca was "Rockin' and Rollin' On the Streets of Hollywood," a song that is more of a solid rock tune than many would expect.

It was Miles' first chart single since 1972 and would also be his last under his own name, as personal and legal issues led to a lack of new releases. His stay at Casablanca was short, and he wasn't back in the spotlight until being the voice of the California Raisins in a series of TV ads in the 1980s. Sadly, Buddy Miles passed away from congestive heart failure in 2008.

David Bellamy - "Nothin' Heavy" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #96, Peaked #77, 6 Weeks on chart)

The first chart single by David Bellamy (even before anything he and his brother Howard did as a duo) was about being young and enjoying love without responsibility. "Nothin' Heavy" had an autobiographical air, but sounds different than the material he and his brother would later perform.

David Bellamy was the writer of Jim Stafford's 1974 hit "Spiders and Snakes," which gave him enough money to move out to Los Angeles while his brother Howard worked as a road manager for Stafford. After "Nothin' Heavy" fell off the charts, the two brothers teamed up on a song written by Neil Diamond's roadie. That song, "Let Your Love Flow," would be the song that changed the direction of their careers.

Duke and the Drivers - "What You Got" (Original Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #97, Peaked #95, 2 Weeks on chart)

After a short two-week stay in August that failed to get any higher than position #100, "What You Got" was given a second chance. Its #97 peak immediately gave it a better showing than it was initially given, but an additional week at #95 was all they could get before the song fell off the Hot 100 for good.

Duke and the Drivers were a Boston-based band that had an R&B-infused rock sound that was similar to The J. Geils Band, another local group. However, they weren't doing similar material and both bands drew large crowds at their performances. When Duke & the Drivers released their first LP in 1975, "What You Got" was a decent regional hit and the band was known to drop by radio stations unannounced to get more airplay.

The song sounds like it could have been performed by Kiss or maybe Grand Funk, but it failed to catch on nationally and the band never managed to get a followup single to chart. Duke & the Drivers took occasional hiatuses over the years, but still get together and perform and are still a legendary "party" band in New England.

Poco - "Keep On Tryin'" Keep On Tryin' - Head Over Heals

(Debuted #99, Peaked #50, 9 Weeks on chart)

In keeping with Poco's country-rock roots, "Keep On Tryin'" features a sparse accompaniment (just an acoustic guitar) that gives an emphasis to the band's tight vocal harmonies. The song opened their Head Over Heels LP, a record that veered more toward pop material than the group usually performed. In a sense, it was a short bit that satisfied their fans before getting into their newer sound.

"Keep On Tryin'" was written by band member Timothy B. Schmit, whose voice is out in the front of the recording.

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