Saturday, October 1, 2011

This Week's Review -- October 1, 1977

This week, this blog has passed the milestone of 1,000 songs reviewed. There were ten new singles on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Of those, four went into the Top 40 and one went all the way to #1. That chart-topper would spend more than 30 weeks on the chart, but interestingly, there were three songs that were gone within two weeks, with another gone the following week. Among the hits was a pure pop confection by Player, a live track by Barry Manilow, an ode to domestic bliss by James Taylor and a formulaic song by England Dan and John Ford Coley. Below the Top 40 this week were songs by a Jazz drummer from New Orleans, a group from the same city, a supergroup who recorded some bigger hits early in the decade, a followup to a #1 hit that was quickly forgotten and a soundtrack song to a forgotten disco film. And then there's a two-minute blast from the past, a 1950s-styled tune that used a guitar hero from that decade.

Google Books has a large archive of past Billboard issues,but the October 1, 1977 edition is missing. Once again, I'll do a quick mention of my other music-related blog, 80s Music Mayhem. Last week's focus was 1980, and three of the five songs I featured there missed the Top 40. Ironically, the one that made it highest up the chart may be the one that's the least familiar. But that's what I do on that blog: I look for great music to feature regardless of how "popular" it may have been then. There's plenty more to read about, check it out each weekday as new entries come up.

Idris Muhammad - "Could Heaven Ever Be Like This (Part 1)" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #80, Peaked #76, 2 Weeks on chart)

The top-debuting song this week didn't stick around for very long. In fact, it rose four places to #76 the next week and then dropped off the chart entirely. That was unusual even in the more volatile chart action early in the 1970s, but by 1977 songs were remaining on the chart longer than at any time in the decade.

Idris Muhammad was born Leo Morris in New Orleans and changed name in 1960s when he converted to Islam. He was a jazz drummer and bandleader, and built quite a studio session for his Turn This Mutha Out LP, which was led off by "Could Heaven Ever Be Like This." Despite the fact that it's a disco-influenced song with its thumping bass and the ever-present clavinet, the improvisational nature of jazz is quite evident here as well. Both Randy and Michael Brecker contribute, as does fusion guitarist Hiram Bullock (who gets in a solo on the record) and future Village People lead singer Ray Simpson helps out on backing vocals.

Barry Manilow - "Daybreak" Daybreak (Live) - Barry Manilow - Live

(Debuted #82, Peaked #23, 10 Weeks on chart)

When I was in college, I did a shift on my campus radio station one semester that ended at 5 in the morning. The station shared a frequency with another that played classical music (which made for an interesting combination), and the last thing I did before leaving the studio was to switch over to the other broadcaster. One night, I decided to end the show by playing the song "Daybreak." Using the studio version on the LP This One's For You, I ended the show and even nailed my backtiming perfectly.

The next day, I stopped at the station's music library and the music director looked at me funny. When I shot him a puzzled look, all he could do was say, "Manilow? Really, man?"

The single version of "Daybreak" was a track from the Barry Manilow Live LP (and not the live show in the video above), which is a more energetic version that captures him interacting with the audience in a way that the original album cut didn't. As a selection that hadn't originally been issued as a single, it was hard to beat "Daybreak" as a promotion for the live album.

The Meters - "Be My Lady" Be My Lady (Single Version) - Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology

(Debuted #84, Peaked #78, 2 Weeks on chart)

"Be My Lady" was a second song this week that would disappear quickly after a two-week stay on the Hot 100. Like the Idris Muhammad song mentioned above, it rose in its second week and was then gone. In both cases, neither act would return to the pop chart.

In 1977, The Meters came out with a new album called New Directions, with an arrow painted on the top of an asphalt road on the cover. While that indicated a change in the group's style and overall sound, it ended up being the end of the road for the band. "Be My Lady" would be the final chart single for the New Orleans band before breaking up.

A light song with a funky groove and a brass section, "Be My Lady" has a guitar solo in the instrumental bridge that is accompanied by a George Benson-style "scat." It was an interesting direction the band was heading in (not unlike the one The Isley Brothers would explore in the next decade), so it's a shame the band fell apart when it did.

England Dan and John Ford Coley - "Gone Too Far" Gone Too Far (Single Version) - Dowdy Ferry Road

(Debuted #86, Peaked #23, 14 Weeks on chart)

Before I get into the review of this song, I would be remiss if I missed the chance to point out that the YouTube video above shows a Ronco record playing. For those who grew up in the 1970s, Ronco, K-Tel and to a lesser extent Adam VIII were great ways to get a lot of hits on record cheaply.

"Gone Too Far" is not one of the first tunes that comes to mind when people mention England Dan and John Ford Coley. Despite that fact, it follows the format their other hit singles did: a piano and string-laden opening, Dan Seals's voice (in fact, it sounds a lot like it did in his 80s country hits), overdubbed backing vocals, an ace studio guitarist to highlight th end of certain lines. Needless to say, if you're a fan of teh group, you'll like this song.

At its core, "Gone Too Far" is a song about falling in love without even realizing it. While some might see it as a warning that you'll never know when "The One" pops into your life and can't stop of fate, others may simply dismiss it as 70s-fueled ennui. In any event, it's weird to hear this single on the heels of "It's Sad to Belong," which gave off a completely different vibe altogether.

Robert Gordon with Link Wray - "Red Hot" (Original Not on iTunes)

(Debuted #87, Peaked #83, 3 Weeks on chart)

"Retro" is a tag that applies to something that is new but feels like it should be older.  Today, that can be applied to a song that washes itself in an '80s synth line, or that whistle that seems to pop up in disco music. In the 1970s, the tag would be perfectly applied to "Red Hot," which seemed more like a blast of 1950s rock & roll than anything that Sha Na Na or Flash Cadillac could have laid down.

One way of getting the right sound on the song was the addition of Link Wray, who recorded a groundbreaking guitar song called "Rumble" in 1958. Wray focused on the guitar after catching tuberculosis during his Korea War-era hitch in the Army. He lost a lung and channeled his energies to his instrument. His guitar on "Red Hot" sound like they were borrowed from a 1957-era 45.

It isn't just Wray's fetwork; the piano rocks as hard as if The Killer himself were sitting in the session. For those who say a 1950s-themed song wouldn't be complete without a saxophone solo, one wasn't needed here. Using lingo from the era ("My gal is red hot, your gal ain't doodly squat"), the song was a counterpoint to the sequined jumpsuit-wearing Elvis...whose death just a few weeks before was likely a boost for the song.

Robert Gordon was a rockabilly-influenced singer who had also tried his hand in a punk band before "Red Hot." The fury of punk was something that both helped his delivery of "Red Hot" but also -- ironically -- gave the song some of the attitude of 1950s rock & roll. This wasn't a "safe" sock hop tune, it was a throwback to the time where community leaders thought rockers were little more than juvenile delinquents.

James Taylor - "Your Smiling Face" Your Smiling Face (Live Video) - JT

(Debuted #88, Peaked #20, 17 Weeks on chart)

In 1977, James Taylor left his long-time label Warner Brothers for a long-term deal with Columbia. His first album with the new label was simply called JT and "Your Smiling Face" was the first cut on the record. The album was his best-selling in years.

It's pretty certain the song was written with his then-wife Carly Simon in mind. They were approaching their fifth anniversary at the time and the song expresses his surprise at his domestic bliss. The introspective singer/songwriter vibe of his earlier work had been given more of a pop sheen, and the sparse acoustic accompaniment replaced by a crack studio band. The song is expertly produced, which makes it sound great, but the lyrics send Taylor toward a crooner persona that he didn't have in his early records.

Crosby, Stills and Nash - "Fair Game" Fair Game - CSN

(Debuted #89, Peaked #43, 9 Weeks on chart)

"Fair Game" was the followup to "Just a Song Before I Go," as well as the only 1970s chart single that Crosby, Still & Nash (with or without Neil Young) missed the Top 40 with. As a result, the song gets less exposure than the hits, or even non-single tracks like "Almost Cut My Hair." It was taken from the album CSN, the group's first record of original material in seven years.

Opening with a Spanish-style acoustic guitar intro, "Fair Game" features all the elements you'd expect from the trio: tight vocal harmonies, lyrics that say whatever they feel, Steve Stills' guitar solo, but in the end it really doesn't stand out from their other work, which is likely why it failed to reach the chart positions of their earlier hits.

Player - "Baby Come Back" Baby Come Back - The Best of Player - Baby Come Back

(Debuted #90, Peaked #1, 32 Weeks on chart)

In the early days of this blog (which was nearly three years ago), I had intended to do a series of posts with what I considered to be great songs from the 1970s. Eventually, I hit on the idea of reviewing singles and the other plans simply fell by the wayside. "Baby Come Back" was the fourth song in that feature.

Here's what I wrote about it back then:

It may have been inevitable for Player to come up with one great hit. As a band of L.A. studio musicians, they were in an ideal place to hone their craft at a time when the music business was reaching a commercial peak. They were signed to RSO records at precisely the same time as the label was mining platinum with The Bee Gees and Andy Gibb, not to mention the phenomenal success of the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks. Not only that, but Player released a single that sounded a lot like a Hall & Oates single just as that duo was getting hot. The stars were perfectly aligned for them in late 1977, and "Baby Come Back was at #1 on Billboard's chart early in 1978.

Speaking of RSO records, they set an amazing record while "Baby Come Back" was charting: Between the week that Debbie Boone's "You Light Up My Life" fell out of the top slot in December '77 and late May '78 when Wings took "With a Little Luck" to #1, an RSO single held down the pole position every week. Six singles -- four from Saturday Night Fever -- over 21 weeks is a legendary achievement. For a list of every #1 single of the 1970s, check out my site.

"Baby Come Back" is a finely crafted pop tune. Opening with a bass and drum intro that sets up a great reverberated guitar line, the song leads up to a familiar pop topic: boy loses girl (by being "wrong") and misses her greatly. In fact, no matter how much he tries to get over her or puts up a front, she's still emblazoned in his mind. Yes, the same theme has been a thread running through countless pop songs from Elvis to 1990s Boy Bands, but Player did it in a way that made you sing along.

In a nutshell, it may be one of the best pure pop songs of the decade.

Johnnie Taylor - "Disco 9000" Disco 9000 - Rated X-Traordinaire - The Best of Johnnie Taylor

(Debuted #94, Peaked #86, 2 Weeks on chart)

Disco 9000 was a "blaxploitation" film from 1976, and Johnnie Taylor played a small part in the movie. He also did the soundtrack music. After his successful tenure at Stax ended when the label folded, Taylor was one of the many artists to embrace the disco sound that was burgeoning at the time. Immediately, he notched his biggest hit with "Disco Lady," which likely helped him get the Disco 9000 movie score.

The song "Disco 9000" wasn't awful, but might not have been the right song to anchor to a movie. For instance, there was another movie set to come out that centered around a group of kids who go to a disco on the weekends in Brooklyn that would notch the biggest soundtrack in history. While it may not be fair to compare Disco 9000 with Saturday Night Fever, it's worth pointing out that a song like "Stayin' Alive" still brings up visions of John Travolta walking with the paint can. There are no images associated with the song "Disco 9000."

Alan O'Day - "Started Out Dancing, Ended Up Making Love" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #95, Peaked #73, 6 Weeks on chart)

The followup to "Undercover Angel" didn't have the same polarizing effect as its predecessor. In fact, few even realized it was around and it died a quick death on the chart. The title is pretty straightforward, but it begs the question: isn't that why a lot people went to discos in the first place?

Before becoming known as a One-Hit Wonder, Alan O'Day was a songwriter who penned hits such as Helen Reddy's "Angie Baby," Bobby Sherman's "The Drum," Cher's "Train of Thought" and The Righteous Brothers' "Rock and Roll Heaven." After venturing into his own singing career, O'Day seems to have given up on pop music after his big hit faded from view. He left Warner Brothers in 1982 and ventured into television. During the 1980s he wrote music for the show Muppet Babies and has continued making music for kid-focused projects.

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