Saturday, June 9, 2012

This Week's Review -- June 9, 1979

There were only six songs debuting in the Billboard Hot 100 this week, which is a lot less than the slate most of the weeks I've been featuring here lately. Three of the songs made the Top 40 and one reached the Top 10. Despite the fact that the Disco backlash hadn't happened yet, it's worth noting that only one song can really be categorized as a dance number, and that is only here because it took two years to get released. In fact, two of the songs were #1 hits over on the country side, although one of them doesn't exactly fit the genre's regular format. Among the other songs, Carly Simon tries something a little different, Joe Jackson makes a notable introduction and Art Garfunkel lends his voice to a familiar song.

Over at Google Books, several past issues of Billboard are available to read through Online, including the June 9, 1979 edition. The full Hot 100 list appears on page 102. Some lawsuits were in the news: Tom Petty was being sued after his record company was sold, while Bread was trying to settle who got what when it came to royalties. An article on page 87 says that Waylon Jennings (one of this week's artists) would be involved in the making of the film Urban Cowboy within the next month. That didn't end up happening; I wonder what happened to that deal. Ironically, the venue used for that movie was Gilley's in Pasadena, and that would be mentioned on page 90. Finally, a large pull-out section celebrates what was then called "Black Music" despite the multi-faced genres that existed under that umbrella.

Elton John - "Mama Can't Buy You Love" Mama Can't Buy You Love - The Complete Thom Bell Sessions - EP

(Debuted #69, Peaked #9, 18 Weeks on chart)

Shortly after singing about "Philadelphia Freedom," Elton John set off in 1977 on recording an album with one of the architects of that city's distinctive sound, Thom Bell. It was a change for the singer, who has collaborated almost exclusively with lyricist Bernie Taupin up to that point. However, the sessions didn't go well and Elton left before an entire LP could be recorded. Two years later, three songs surfaced on an EP called The Thom Bell Sessions and its biggest hit in the U.S. was "Mama Can't But You Love."

The song was written by Leroy Bell and Casey James, who hit as artists with "Livin' it Up (Friday Night)" earlier in the year. While the project sounded promising and seemed like a great idea given Elton's obvious attraction toward Thom Bell's productions, it wasn't meant to be. That may have worked out for the best, as the Disco "backlash" soon affected the careers of many artists and John's sound evolved with the changing times.

Joe Jackson - "Is She Really Going Out With Him" Is She Really Going Out with Him? - Look Sharp! (Bonus Tracks)

(Debuted #76, Peaked #21, 15 Weeks on chart)

"Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street."

That's the first line of the song, and Joe Jackson sings it with all the disdain of a jilted ex-lover who sees his former beloved with a real douchebag. He doesn't stop there, as he unwinds a song that explores his detached disdain for what he's seeing with his own eyes with a lethally catchy hook on the chorus and a "middle eight" that points toward his interest in jazz and improvisation.

It's a track from Look Sharp!, which was Jackson's American debut. Though written with a poison pen, it's easy to get lost in the music behind the song without realizing that he's essentially throwing daggers with his lyrics. Jackson's music was originally lumped in with his English contemporaries Elvis Costello and Graham Parker simply out of its chronology; all three would definitely develop distinct (and strong) bodies of work, but Jackson wasn't as beholden to the "pub rock" scene as the others. In time, he'd develop his own interests that diverged wildly from rock, and from the others.

In a way, "Is She Really Going Out With Him" was too smart for what usually passes for hit radio. Sarcastic wit makes for cult status (which is definitely the case here), but few songs with this type of bite make it to #21. Especially from artists who've never had any hits before that.

Carly Simon - "Vengeance" Vengeance - Spy

(Debuted #82, Peaked #48, 7 Weeks on chart)

"Vengeance" was a little harder than you might expect from a Carly Simon song. Taken from the LP Spy, it was an attempt to take Simon in a new direction at a time when others were falling on dance-oriented singles. While that might seem like a bold move, it misfired. The album sold poorly and effectively ended her time with Elektra, the record company that had issued all of her 1970s LPs.

Despite the seemingly "new" direction, the record still featured a sharply-written lyric that tended toward pop phrasing and a slick studio production. In other words, it might have rocked a little bit harder but it was still a Carly Simon record at its core.

Eddie Rabbitt - "Suspicions" Suspicions - Loveline

(Debuted #85, Peaked #12, 17 Weeks on chart)

"Suspicions" is one of the two #1 country songs that debuted on this week's pop chart, but it really doesn't sound like what most would think (in 1979) as a traditional country record. It features a smooth R&B rhythm and a pop sensibility. The lyrics are more in line with a country song -- the narrator is at the edge of paranoia because others are paying attention to his lady -- but it should be little surprise to anyone listening that it was a major crossover hit.

The lyrics are similar to Dr. Hook's "When You're in Love With a Beautiful Woman," which was on the charts at the same time. However, while you get the idea that Dr. Hook is winking while he's delivering the lines (credit the long list of Shel Silverstein songs they performed for that), the cadence here suggests something more sinister and the whispered lyrics make it sound like Rabbitt is sharing a very deep secret. I'm a fan of both songs, but it's the nuances in this song which makes me like this song more.

Art Garfunkel - "Since I Don't Have You" Since I Don't Have You - Fate for Breakfast

(Debuted #88, Peaked #53, 9 Weeks on chart)

With "Since I Don't Have You," Art Garfunkel puts his considerable vocal talent to work on a remake of the 1958 Skyliners hit. While the orchestration of the song was lush (even for the standards of 1958), it was offset by a jazzier saxophone solo than the original would have featured. Garfunkel also handles the song as a truly "solo" effort, eschewing backing singers. By doing that, he avoided the effect that made the original so unique, with its interplay near the end between Jimmy Beaumont's falsetto and Janet Vogel's soprano. Instead, he renders the song as an adult-oriented tune. That's fine if you like adult-oriented laments, but the question remains about how much better it might have been as a duet.

While "Since I Don't Have You" failed to reach the pop Top 40, it was -- predictably -- a bigger hit on the adult contemporary chart, reaching #12. It was also able to reach the Top 40 in the U.K.

Waylon - "Amanda" Amanda - The Essential Waylon Jennings

(Debuted #90, Peaked #54, 7 Weeks on chart)

"Amanda" wasn't a new song at all. It was written in 1973 by Bob MacDill and was a country hit for Don Williams that same year. It wasn't even a new song by Waylon Jennings,  either. He originally recorded it for his 1974 LP The Ramblin' Man but RCA declined to issue it as a single, probably because Williams' version as still "fresh" in the minds of country fans.

In 1979, the song was included in a Greatest Hits compilation by Jennings (which billed him by his first name only) and given its shot to succeed as a single. The original 1974 recording was used, but several overdubs were added to "sweeten" the sound and reflect on a new milestone in Jennings' life. A world-weary vocal where a man reflects on the hard road he's taken and the realization that the woman who's accompanied him on that trip likely deserved better, the song is delivered in a slow, deliberate cadence. In my younger days, I found it to be boring...but as I've traveled my own road and picked up experience, the vocal gains something I just didn't see back then.

"Amanda" would miss the pop Top 40, but was a #1 country hit. In fact, it was one of that year's biggest hits in the genre.

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