Saturday, March 17, 2012

This Week's Review -- March 16, 1974

There were nine new singles debuting in the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with six eventually reaching the Top 40. However, five of those ended up in the Top 10, making this a very potent list. And why not? Considering the list included new songs by Chicago, Cat Stevens, The Jackson 5, Joni Mitchell and Three Dog Night, many of the era's most popular acts were aboard. The songs that missed the Top 40 weren't exactly slouches either, coming from Neil Diamond, The Temptations and Cozy Powell (not a big name, but a very respected drummer). The last song on the list is a returning hit that had already been a hit in 1955, but placement in a movie and then a TV show brought it back into the Top 40.

Although there is a large archive of past issues of Billboard over at Google Books, the March 16, 1974 edition is missing from the archives. Instead, I'll once again refer to my other regular music blog, 80s Music Mayhem, which runs new posts every weekday. Over there, I just finished a week's worth of songs from 1984. If you're into 1980s music at all, be sure to check it out.

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The Jackson 5 - "Dancing Machine" Dancing Machine (Single Version) - Dancing Machine / Moving Violation

(Debuted #79, Peaked #2, 22 Weeks on chart)

When The Jackson 5 sent four straight singles to #1 and then followed with a pair of #2 hits, they had one of the greatest debuts in history. However, they never managed to reach those heights again until 1974, when they embraced the new, rising trend of "dance" music that would soon blossom into Disco. While performing "Dancing Machine" live, Michael would break out into "The Robot" (as he does in the clip above) during the instrumental bridge, showing the flair for dancing that he would make his trademark for the rest of his life.

It was the Jackson brothers' last big hit with Motown before the lure of more money and creative freedom lured most of them over to Epic. It would spend two weeks lodged at #2, kept out of the top spot by another song that was about a 1970s trend ("The Streak"), albeit a more passing fad.

Chicago - "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long" (I've Been) Searchin' So Long - Chicago VII

(Debuted #80, Peaked #9, 15 Weeks on chart)

While their "regular" lead singer Peter Cetera handled the lead vocals on "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long," the lyrics took a more introspective direction than many of the the hits that Cetera wrote did. That is because it was written by another group member, James Pankow, who also contributed backing vocals to the song. Pankow's main contribution to Chicago's "sound" was his brass arrangement (which is quite evident here), but he was also one of the band's main songwriters.

It would be the first of three fairly big hits off the Chicago VII LP, which helped cement their "new" direction away from the side-length suites and jazz/rock fusion jams of their earlier albums and moved to a slicker production and songs that were more tailor-made for pop radio. Though the change definitely brought them more fame and prosperity, critics began asking whether the direction was good for their music. It's a question they're still debating today.

Neil Diamond - "Skybird" Skybird - Jonathan Livingston Seagull

(Debuted #84, Peaked #75, 4 Weeks on chart)

One of the phenomena that seemed to only be able to manifest itself during the 1970s was Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was originally a short novel in 1970 and featured a message of self-assurance in the story of a seagull who learns to love flying. Many saw it as a metaphor -- some said religious, others said it was nothing more than "pyscho-babble" -- and a movie seemed to be inevitable once it became an established craze. And when the movie (which featured no human actors that were on the screen) came out, the action was accompanied by several Neil Diamond songs as its soundtrack. 

Diamond's soundtrack ended up grossing more money than the film did. Setting a story that followed a seagull didn't bring Diamond a hit bonanza -- "Be" made the lower reaches of the Top 40 but "Skybird" fell far short -- but it kept Diamond on the radio until he was ready to start cranking out more MOR-friendly tunes later that year.

Joni Mitchell - "Help Me" Help Me - Court and Spark

(Debuted #87, Peaked #7, 19 Weeks on chart)

Joni Mitchell is a well-renowned singer/songwriter, one whose influence doesn't equate to a large number of hit singles. For instance, "Help Me" is the only Top 10 pop single she ever managed to have under her own name, but other artists have scored with songs she wrote like "Both Sides Now," "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock." Her songs have been widely covered, and she's been named as an influence by hundreds of performers who followed her.  

"Help Me" was a track from Court and Spark, Mitchell's only #1 LP. Its unique sound came from the fact that she recorded it with with the jazz-based band Tom Scott's L.A. Express -- which included Larry Carlton as well as Scott -- instead of a session group that was more of a rock unit. It was apparently written about Eagle Glen Frey, but has been attributed to a few other musicians as seems Joni got around quite a lot at the time.

Cat Stevens - "Oh Very Young" Oh Very Young - Buddha and the Chocolate Box (Remastered)

(Debuted #88, Peaked #10, 17 Weeks on chart)

Although Cat Stevens was still a few years away from his conversion to Islam and his exit from the music business, his work always showed signs that he was curious about various religions and leaving behind the excesses of the life he was living. Imagery was a big part of his music, and a statue on the cover of his LP Buddha and the Chocolate Box showed he was still exploring those questions.

"Oh Very Young" was not only Stevens' first Top 10 pop hit in nearly two years, it showed that he was returning to the form that he showed on the record Teaser and the Firecat, which had been his most successful period. A song that looked at the idealism of youth from the perspective of someone who's crossed over into a more cynical or jaded viewpoint, it is a simply stated message that is still fairly well-played today on Adult-oriented radio.

Cozy Powell - "Dance With The Devil" Dance With the Devil - Lost Hits of the 70's

(Debuted #89, Peaked #49, 8 Weeks on chart)

Cozy Powell made a name for himself as a drummer extraordinaire. Although "Dance With the Devil" was his only solo hit single in the U.S., he was a part of several influential groups over the years, such as the Jeff Beck Group, Rainbow, MSG, Whitesnake during its pre-hit period and a later incarnation of Black Sabbath. Later on, he took Keith Powell's place in ELP so they could keep the monogram.

Essentially, "Dance With the Devil" is a drum solo accompanied by sparse musical arrangements and chanting. That incantation was lifted largely from The Jimi Hendrix Experience's "Third Rock From the Sun" and would later be sampled in Right Said Fred's 1992 hit "I'm Too Sexy." But it's the pounding of the skins that is front and center on the record. Although it ended up falling short of the Top 40 in the U.S., it was a #3 hit in the U.K.

Three Dog Night - "The Show Must Go On" The Show Must Go On - Three Dog Night: The Complete Hit Singles

(Debuted #90, Peaked #4, 19 Weeks on chart)

Before the words begin to "The Show Must Go On," There is a familiar calliope that usually accompanies the moment when clowns enter the circus. Despite that association brought about by repeated playing, few actually know that the "fun" song was originally written as a military march. Julius Fukic wrote the tune in 1897 as "Entry of the Gladiators" for what was then a regiment of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Just a little fact that came up as I was researching.

"The Show Must Go On" was written by Leo Sayer, who would wear a clown's clothing as he performed it live. One thing that was changed when Three Dog Night recorded it was the final line of the song; they sang "but I must let the show go on" rather than Sayer's "but I can't let the show go on," which gave the entire lyric a different meaning. Sayer evidently wasn't pleased about it, despite the royalty payday he certainly recieved.

"The Show Must Go On" was the 11th Top 10 pop single for Three Dog Night, extending an unbroken streak of Top 40 hits since 1969. They would gain three more Top 40 singles after that, but never reached the Top 10 again.

The Temptations - "Heavenly" Heavenly - The Complete Collection: The Temptations

(Debuted #96, Peaked #43, 9 Weeks on chart)

"Heavenly" was a majestic ballad that showed that The Temptations were still able to shift gears between their socially aware songs and their Psychedelic Soul and showcase the harmonies that brought them to Motown in the first place. However, the album that contained the song -- titled 1990, when that was still a not-too-distant date -- was a mix of all of those different sounds, which came off as uneven.

Although "Heavenly" stopped just short of the pop Top 40, it reached the Top 10 over on the R&B charts. It's been rumored that a perceived slight during an awards show led to DJs refusing to play the song...but a Top 10 showing in the group's target audience doesn't seem to indicate that a boycott of "Heavenly" took place. Not a major one, in any case.

Bill Haley and His Comets - "(We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock" Rock Around the Clock - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: Best of Bill Haley & His Comets

(Debuted #99, Peaked #39, 14 Weeks on chart)

Yes, this song is a #1 hit from 1955. In fact, it was the song that was considered to have jump-started what is now known as the "Rock Era" when it knocked Cuban bandleader Perez Prado's "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" off the #1 position in Billboard's Best Sellers in Stores survey. In that era where there were no consolidated "hit" charts, it eventually took the top spot on the Most Played By Jockeys and Most Played in Jukeboxes charts as well, holding the #1 spot in all three simultaneously for the entire month of August that year. More importantly, it was used as the opening theme to the film The Blackboard Jungle, where it cemented itself in the minds of true badasses and "wannabe" delinquents, especially when their parents disapproved of it.

A wave of 1950s nostalgia swept across the nation in the 1970s. After the Vietnam War began to wrap itself up and Watergate replaced it as a staple of news reports, many Americans looked back on the "better days" of the past. That nostalgic feeling is fairly universal (in fact, it fuels this blog), especially for the Baby Boomers who were looking at a nation that seemed so different than it did during their youth. Naturally, "Rock Around the Clock" resurfaced in that wave; it was prominently used in the film American Graffiti and was the theme song to the TV series Happy Days for its first two seasons. 

With its renewed exposure, it was once again issued as a single and re-entered the Top 40.

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