Saturday, July 21, 2012

This Week's Review -- July 21, 1973

There were eight new singles on this week's Billboard Hot 100.  Three of them would eventually make the Top 40 and one went Top 10. While a cursory look at the list of songs suggests a followup theme, an actual listen to the music suggests that many of them were simply overshadowed. The sole Top 10 was not War's biggest or best-known hit, but it is a tune that represents their diversity well. Curtis Mayfield and Lookig Glass appear with songs that followed much bigger hits in both style and substance, yet both are songs that could stand well on their own. Sylvia follows "Pillow Talk" with another breathy song, Coven remakes its own previous hit for a new Billy Jack movie, Mickey Newbury shows off his introverted songwriting style and The Independents follow the lead of their previous hit. Even the hit that is from a new artist has been overshadowed by the fact that the group's music has provided the backbeat for dozens of hip-hop songs.

Google Books has an archive of past Billboard magazines, but the July 21, 1973 edition is missing. In lieu of that, I'll once again mention that I regularly write a second music-related blog called 80s Music Mayhem. The format is similar to what I'm doing here, but it only covers a single song each weekday. Last week's focus was on songs from 1982 and the songs chosen were fairly wide in their styles. Check it out if you haven't done so, and feel free to bookmark or follow both of these blogs.

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War - "Gypsy Man" Gypsy Man (Single Version) - The Very Best of War

(Debuted #66, Peaked #8, 13 Weeks on chart)

The video above has a cover shot of War's Why Can't We Be Friends? LP, even though "Gypsy Man" is actually from Deliver the Word. On that album, it's an 11-minute cut, which was then truncated down to a more radio-friendly length (but still went really long) for the single release. It's the single version that appears above.

"Gypsy Man" is a song that shows some of the diversity of the group called War. A Latin rhythm dominates, but vocal harmonies pop up throughout and the production represents the same "everything including the kitchen sink" that Phil Spector utilized during the 1960s (note: Spector wasn't the producer here, Jerry Goldstein was). Percussion jumps out from the record, as does Lee Oskar's harmonica. More of a freeform jam than their other hits were, "Gypsy Man" still shows the group's multifaceted talent in a way that many of those hits really couldn't.

The Incredible Bongo Band - "Bongo Rock" Bongo Rock - Bongo Rock

(Debuted #81, Peaked #57, 7 Weeks on chart)

Sometimes you can judge a song by the title on its label. This song is called "Bongo Rock," the artist's name is The Incredible Bongo Band, and the grooves contain a bunch of percussion.

The Incredible Bongo Band was never really a band. Instead, it was a project by MGM executive Michael Viner. During his studio's down time, he'd bring in musicians to perform for him. Though the musicians remained uncredited due to the covert nature of the group, it's been rumored that Viner was able to get some of the top drummers to contribute, including Jim Gordon and Ringo Starr.Eventually, the source of the band was revealed to top executives, and The Incredible Bongo Band was quietly retired.

"Bongo Rock" was the group's only Hot 100 hit, but its influence lives on thanks to the track "Apache," which has provided beats and breaks for several hip-hop productions.

Sylvia - "Didn't I" Didn't I - Pillow Talk: The Sensuous Sounds of Sylvia

(Debuted #84, Peaked #70, 5 Weeks on chart)

On the surface, "Didn't I" sounds like it was an outtake of the same sessions that produced Sylvia's earlier hit "Pillow Talk." While the accompanying orchestration is less intense (a saxophone takes center stage here), "Didn't I" has the same breathy comments and not-so-suggestive sighs that marked the previous hit. The song may have seemed a little racy at the time, but it isn't such a big deal today. In fact, it seems tamer than the late-night commercials played for 1-900 dating lines on TV.

At the time, Sylvia Robinson was 37, an age where a lot of women truly discover themselves sexually. While the older woman/cougar phenomenon seems recent, it really isn't. And here is sufficient proof: while Jennifer Coolidge -- the actress who played Stiffler's mom in American Pie -- was still in elementary school, Sylvia Robinson was letting the world know that you didn't have to be young to be sensual. She wasn't the first, either. There was another person with the same last name in the movie The Graduate, for instance. The concept wasn't exactly new...the "older woman" has long been around even when the moral culture tried to convince us that it wasn't.

Curtis Mayfield - "Future Shock" Future Shock - Back to the World

(Debuted #85, Peaked #39, 10 Weeks on chart)

If it sounds like "Future Shock" is a remade and updated version of "Superfly," that might not be far off the mark. Mayfield himself drops the name of his earlier hit into the lyrics, which means that he was at least a little aware of the similarity. Both songs have the similar funk-driven sound, and both feature the world-weary warnings about the trappings of life in the ghetto. While it's a song that could have stood well on its own, the similarity to the earlier hit might have kept it from reaching higher on the charts than it did. It barely reached the pop Top 40 and just missed the R&B Top 10.

"Future Shock" was a track on the LP Back to the World, a term that ex-soldiers use to describe returning from their overseas wartime service (at the time, it was Vietnam but troops continue to use the term today). The term was apt, considering the way Mayfield's lyrics describe a world that doesn't seem right to him. His guitar licks seem to come out effortlessly among the heavy music, and his words are carefully chosen yet are still what might be considered "politically incorrect" nowadays. But, he was just telling it the way he saw it. 

The Independents - "Baby I've Been Missing You" Baby I've Been Missing You - Discs Of Gold

(Debuted #89, Peaked #41, 8 Weeks on chart)

The followup to "Leaving Me" (reviewed here in an April "Rewind" feature) barely missed becoming the second Top 40 pop hit for The Independents, peaking at #41. Unfortunately, that was as close as they ever came to getting out of the "One-Hit Wonder" status. That said, they were more of a force on the R&B charts, where "Baby I've Been Missing You" was their third Top 10 hit.

Beginning with a recitation, "Baby I've Been Missing You" is a ballad sung over a string arrangement that uses both parts of the group's male/female dynamic well. In a way, both sides of the story are getting their say, as both deal with a separation from each other. From the lyrics, it appears that it's only been a few days since they've been apart, and the male is sitting around and wallowing in his loneliness. It isn't clear what caused the separation (or if it's permanent), but the female is also chiming in that she misses him too. However, there isn't any indication as to whether she intends to return, so it's assumed that he's resigned to sitting around and contemplating whatever it was that caused her to leave.

Perhaps it's a logical followup to the sentiment of "Leaving Me" as well as a chronological one.

Mickey Newbury - "Sunshine" Sunshine - An American Trilogy

(Debuted #91, Peaked #87, 3 Weeks on chart)

The name "Sunshine" brings to mind a 1973 Jonathan Edwards hit, but this is an entirely different song. Written and originally recorded by Mickey Newbury in the 1960s and re-recorded for his LP Heaven Help the Child, it is an account of a man who has decided to follow his own muse and has left his woman behind. He's still chasing that rainbow (even mentioning that the pot he found wasn't filled with gold) but he's doing it on his own, and at his own chosen speed.

A folk-influenced guitar opens the song with some bird effects that simulate the sound of the new dawn. As Newbury unfolds the story of how he tried and failed to please somebody else on the way to finding his own way, more instruments fill in. There's a mournful steel guitar, then a string section and organ that follow him on his journey, making it clear that he's determined to press on and find whatever it is that's beckoning him.

Looking Glass - "Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne" Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne - Subway Serenade

(Debuted #93, Peaked #33, 15 Weeks on chart)

During the Summer of 1972, "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" became a surprise hit; it was actually a B-side that emerged as a hit after a DJ flipped the disc over when the A-side failed to generate any interest. That song opened a lot of doors for the New Jersey-based band Looking Glass. They were signed to a major label and Arif Mardin was brought in to produce their next LP Subway Serenade. However, as the record shows, the road to a succesful followup is often as difficult as getting a hit.

For the single "Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne," a lot of elements were borrowed from "Brandy": the disaffected vocal by Eliot Lurie, the story within the song, the brass section backing up the band, even the rest of the band coming together in unison during the chorus. The song was a minor hit, though, as it tried too hard to be like its earlier counterpart. Today, the song is a classic 1970s tune in sound and style, but it really didn't stand out in its own time.

"Jimmy Loves Maryann" (note the different spelling of the name in the title) would appear a decade later in another Hot 100 hit, done by Josie Cotton in a then-current sound that is just as a part of its time as this one is. I wrote a review of that song on my other blog earlier this year.

Coven - "One Tin Soldier (The Legend Of Billy Jack)" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #95, Peaked #79, 6 Weeks on chart)

"One Tin Soldier" was originally a hit in 1971 (and reviewed here) when the first Billy Jack movie was in the theater, and Coven re-recorded it when the second movie appeared. The "new" recording appears above, even though the scenes that accompany it in the video are from the first film. It was originally an anti-war song written during the late 1960s and recorded by a Canadian group called The Original Caste, who had a minor hit with the song in 1970.

Ironically, a band whose members were interested in witchcraft and Satanism (hence the name) made a song that has often been remembered for its religious imagery. However, the message of the song seems to serve as a warning that doing sin in the name of the Lord is still sin...and practitioners will still be judged for their actions. In any case, it's a relic of the early 1970s, a time where the nation was still reeling from Vietnam and a generational shift.

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