Saturday, December 17, 2011

This Week's Review -- December 18, 1976

Nine new singles debuted in the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Of the four that eventually cracked the Top 40, three reached the Top 10 and two were #1 hits. Both of those chart-toppers are still familiar songs today, as is the other Top 10 hit. The remaining songs are all by artists who are familiar to most casual listeners of the era, and there are a few surprises to be found among them.

There is a large archive of past issues of Billboard magazine at Google Books, including the December 18, 1976 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 68. There are several future trends that are pointed out. An article on page 3 has a Motown executive predicting the "death" of the single format within five years. Another article on page 3 explains the incident on Bill Grundy's TV show involving The Sex Pistols that gave the band some extra notoriety before they ever stepped foot in the U.S. Finally, one of the biggest things to hit the 1980s is referenced in an advertisement on page 17. It's an "open letter" from Sony regarding its Betamax machine. While that unit eventually lost out to VHS in a format war, it was a device that allowed people more freedom to watch what they wanted and at a time of their own choosing. As such, it is a forerunner to today's on-demand video and DVR units.

Apple iTunes

The Eagles - "New Kid In Town" New Kid In Town - Hotel California

(Debuted #48, Peaked #1, 15 Weeks on chart)

Until I was 13 years old, I lived in a military family. As a result, I was forced to move several times and definitely understood what it was like to be "the new kid." I also learned that while the new kid is usually a source of interest, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. And when you live in a military atmosphere, it doesn't take long until there is another "new kid" coming in to grab attention.

In the case of the Eagles song, it was directed at the fickle state of the music business and the way artists are pushed aside for "The Next Big Thing." A track from their Hotel California LP, it would become their third #1 pop single as well as a #2 adult contemporary hit.

The Steve Miller Band - "Fly Like An Eagle" Fly Like An Eagle - Fly Like An Eagle

(Debuted #73, Peaked #2, 20 Weeks on chart)

Moving from a song by The Eagles to another with "Eagle" in its title, "Fly Like an Eagle" has long been one of The Steve Miller Band's most recognized tunes. Its mellow vibe, soaring synth lines and title lead some to claim the song is about using drugs, but that avoids the other lines of the song that mention feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless.

"Fly Like an Eagle" has been widely played on album rock stations since its hit days, often in tandem with "Space Intro," the song that segued into it on the Fly Like An Eagle LP.

KISS - "Hard Luck Woman" Hard Luck Woman - Rock and Roll Over (Remastered)

(Debuted #74, Peaked #15, 13 Weeks on chart)

"Hard Luck Woman" may sound like a blatant attempt to recreate the events that made "Beth" a surprise hit. Like that song, it is a ballad and features Peter Criss handling the vocals. The main instrument here is an acoustic-sounding guitar (which, like the piano in "Beth," was different from the hard-edged electric guitar they were known for). However, instead of Criss also writing the song, "Hard Luck Woman" was a Paul Stanley creation. He wrote it for Rod Stewart and gave it to Criss when Stewart declined to record it.

It's a shame, since I would like to hear how Stewart would have handled it. The song sounds perfectly suited for his style.

In the hands of KISS, it's a compelling song because it's so different from their "standard" material. The acoustic rendition gave an additional element to what many saw as a band that was all about makeup and pyrotechnics. It's just the type of song that the "hair metal" bands 15 years later -- many of whom were influenced by KISS in their youth -- would step away from their instruments midway through their concert to play.

Donna Summer - "Winter Melody" Winter Melody - Four Seasons of Love b/w "Spring Affair" Spring Affair - Four Seasons of Love

(Debuted #80, Peaked #43, 15 Weeks on chart)

Since this is a two-sided single, here's an additional video for the B-Side:

Donna Summer's Four Seasons of Love was a concept album that told the story of a love affair in four parts, and each phase was attributed to a season of the year as it blossomed and ultimately died. There were only four songs on the entire LP (plus a reprise of the first song at the end), and two of them were included on this single (in abridged form). They were the opening ("Spring") and closing ("Winter") acts.

Interestingly, the A-side was the finale, "Winter Melody." It was performed as a ballad, as the protagonist/narrator comes to the realization that the romance is over ("cause he's not coming home and I'm here alone"). Like winter, she feels the chill and finds it dark and lonely as the storms approach. "Spring Affair," on the other hand, is much more upbeat and hopeful, as you'd expect when love is new.

Heart - "Dreamboat Annie" Dreamboat Annie - Dreamboat Annie

(Debuted #82, Peaked #42, 10 Weeks on chart)

The version of "Dreamboat Annie" in the video above is a live rendition, which doesn't feature the song the way it was presented on the single. In that version, Heart's record company decided that the two minute running time was too short and tacked the acoustic guitar intro from "Crazy On You" to it, which made me check my player a couple of times to verify I had loaded the right song while I was listening to it for this review. In the clip above, Nancy Wilson does a different solo on the acoustic guitar to open the song.

Dreamboat Annie was the debut LP by Heart and included three separate songs called "Dreamboat Annie." The version that was placed on the single (albeit with an extended intro tacked on) was the second version. The first was an intro that ran for a minute between the album's biggest tracks "Magic Man" and "Crazy On You." There was also a reprise of the song that finished the album's second side. It features Ann Wilson's vocal in a softer vein than what the two previous hits showed, giving her more ammunition to be considered one of her generation's best singers, regardless of genre. She even sings over a banjo, which definitely didn't appear on the earlier singles.

The single mix of "Dreamboat Annie" is still unreleased on any Heart album.

Starbuck - "Lucky Man" Lucky Man - Moonlight Feels Right

(Debuted #83, Peaked #73, 5 Weeks on chart)

Starbuck had one of the defining singles of the Summer of 1976 when "Moonlight Feels Right" began playing on radio stations. On their followup singles from the album, the group risked being seen as a One-Hit Wonder because they were unable to score another Top 40 hit until their next LP came out. "Lucky Man" wasn't destined to be that hit.

"Lucky Man" (not a remake of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer song of the same title) was a song that had its own charm and was awash with keyboards, but lacked the same spirit the band gave "Moonlight Feels Right."

Plus, the line "we're happy as a monkey in a coconut tree" is a little goofy.

Cliff Richard - "I Can't Ask For Anymore Than You" I Can't Ask for Anymore Than You - I'm Nearly Famous

(Debuted #84, Peaked #80, 4 Weeks on chart)

Cliff Richard was the all-time top performer in the U.K., with even more hit records there than The Beatles had. In the U.S., his chart fortunes weren't as bright. Ironically, his American hits dried up as the British Invasion brought fame to many of his countrymen. He only managed a pair of Hot 100 singles after The Beatles arrived in 1964 through their breakup, and neither one of them got any higher on the Billboard chart than #92. By the mid 1970s, he was even having trouble in his native country, failing to chart in the U.K. at all in 1975 despite still releasing naew material.

In 1976, he recorded the LP I'm Nearly Famous, which returned him to prominence in his home country and gave him his first American Top 10 hit "Devil Woman." It was seen as a return to his 1960s form, as well as an embrace of a harder-edged style that he hadn't used since early in his career. The first track on that album was "I Can't Ask For Anymore Than You," a song that has Richard bringing out a falsetto.

The song only reached #80 in the U.S. and #17 in the U.K. Richard had a breakthrough in America, but his next big hits would not arrive there until a new decade rolled around.

Thelma Houston - "Don't Leave Me This Way" Don't Leave Me This Way (Single Version) - Motown 1's

(Debuted #85, Peaked #1, 24 Weeks on chart)

"Don't Leave Me This Way" has become one of the "prototypical" disco songs, over the years and has popped up in several retrospectives on the era as well as many movies that were set in the decade. The first of those movies was Looking For Mr. Goodbar, a 1977 film that appeared shortly after the song had fallen off the chart. It was an unqualified crossover smash, reaching the #1 position on Billboard's pop, R&B and Disco charts.

The song was originally recorded by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, with Teddy Pendergrass singing. That version wasn't released as a single in the U.S. but featured a more subdued opening and its arrangement was designed to accentuate Pendergrass' voice as he built up to the choruses; Houston's version was tailor-made for the dance floor, so the arrangement is amped up until the song fades out. As a nice counterpoint, the video clip above has Houston giving the song a slightly different take, which lets us hear more of her voice than the single did.

Paul Anka - "Happier" Happier - The Best of the United Artists Years (1973-1977)

(Debuted #86, Peaked #60, 7 Weeks on chart)

The video above simply features "Happier" in its vinyl state, as part of what appears to be a compilation of Paul Anka's hits (I can't read the label in the video, but the words look too long to be his LP The Painter, where the song originally appeared). I'll mention that the few audible pops on the record are annoying to some, but a familiar relic of the "old days" to others.

"Happier" seems to be written in a similar state of marital contentment that caused him to write "Having My Baby," except with what sounds like a marching band (complete with a tuba player) and a synthesizer accompanying him. It was the first chart single he released since his mid-70s "comeback" to miss the Top 40, but ended up in the adult contemporary Top 10.

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