In the fall of 1970, I was the first kid on my school bus every morning, and thus I traveled through rural Wisconsin on gravel roads and paths trodden by cows to get to school. Being the first kid on, I had my pick of seats. The back of the bus was the most desirable spot, but what you must know about the social dynamics of the school bus is that little kids don’t get to sit in the back. One particular morning, in an attempt to keep from getting my ass kicked, I chose a seat near the front, underneath the radio speaker. And on that morning, the bus driver tuned in WLS, the Top 40 giant from Chicago, and nothing in my life was ever the same after that.
There were some fine, fine songs on the radio that day, and some goofy stuff too, because it was the 1970s, and that was the law. The nation’s Top Ten looked like this on November 7, 1970:
10. Lola — The Kinks Amazon iTunes
9. Candida — Dawn Amazon iTunes
8. Cracklin’ Rosie — Neil Diamond Amazon iTunes
7. I Think I Love You — The Partridge Family Amazon iTunes
6. All Right Now — Free Amazon iTunes
5. Indiana Wants Me — R. Dean Taylor Amazon iTunes
4. Green-Eyed Lady — Sugarloaf Amazon iTunes
3. Fire and Rain — James Taylor Amazon iTunes
2. We’ve Only Just Begun — Carpenters Amazon iTunes
1. I’ll Be There — The Jackson Five Amazon iTunes
10. Lola — The Kinks
If, in the version you know, Ray Davies sings about champagne that tastes like cherry cola, you have the version he recorded after the BBC refused to air the original line about champagne that tastes like Coca-Cola because it would have constituted a commercial mention. (The re-cutting apparently required Davies to make a one-day round-trip from New York to London.) As a lad of 10, I could not have grasped the transvestite subtext, but I take comfort in the fact that there are people who are a lot older who still don’t get it. If that’s you, please click here for an explanation in flowchart form.
9. Candida — Dawn (download)
“Candida” was written by late-period Brill Building songwriters Irwin Levine and Toni Wine. (She’s best known, probably, for providing female vocals for the Archies.) Producers Hank Medress and Dave Appell had cut a version they didn’t like by a group they didn’t like, so they asked Orlando, a friend in the record biz, to recut it. He laid down the lead vocal; Wine and Jay Siegel later provided the backing vocals. Legend has it that Orlando didn’t think about the record again until it was Number 3 on WABC. Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent-Wilson were drafted to become Dawn for the followup single, “Knock Three Times”; they didn’t even meet Orlando until after it had gone to Number One.
8. Cracklin’ Rosie — Neil Diamond
More ungraspable subtext for the 10-year-olds. Despite the song’s borderline racy puns about wine and prostitutes, Diamond was already beginning to shed his ’60s kid-rocker image for that of an adult-contemporary balladeer, at least until you turned this record over. The flipside, “Lordy” is as rough as anything he ever made, featuring throat-shredding screams and lines like “cut your heart out for the prize/while the bitch sings hallelujah.” Here’s how it sounded on his Live at the Troubadour album in 1976:
7. “I Think I Love You” — Partridge Family
In “My Son, the Feminist,” the December 11, 1970, episode of The Partridge Family, Keith’s girlfriend wants the band to perform at her women’s lib rally. The family is skeptical, but when a group of hostile, anti-lib parents threatens to run them out of town, Mother Partridge says “screw you” [loose translation] and the family decides to perform. The appearance nearly doesn’t come off when the hostile parents storm the psychedelic tour bus, and Keith’s girlfriend announces that the band has to sing “women’s liberation songs”– grim, unshaven-armpit agit-prop [loose translation] — but after threatening to quit, a rebellious Keith says goddammit [loose translation], the show must go on, and the family kicks into a song the girlfriend considers exploitative and demeaning to women: “I Think I Love You.” Lo, its powerful bubblegummy mojo wins over the girlfriend, the hostile parents, the school principal, and even Mr. Kincaid, and they all live happily until the next week’s episode. As well they might have: On the night “My Son, the Feminist” aired on ABC, “I Think I Love You” had already spent three weeks at Number One.
6. All Right Now — Free
And suddenly, amidst all the squeaky clean pop music, we’re rockin’, with a band of bluesy British veterans who had been playing together since they were all 15. Even at this relatively early date, guitarist Paul Kossoff was already in the process of killing himself with drugs, a mission he would not accomplish until 1976. Partly due to his drug abuse, the band splintered within a couple of years of “All Right Now.” By the late ’80s, the song earned an award for more than a million radio plays in the United States. Given that classic-rock stations are required by law to play it six times a day, it’s probably over 100 million by now.
5. Indiana Wants Me — R. Dean Taylor (download)
In which Our Hero caps a guy who insults his beloved, then heads for the hills. He’s writing a letter home to his wife and child when the cops show up: “This is the police! You are surrounded! Give yourself up!” The long version (which wasn’t on the 45 everybody bought back in the day) ends with gunshots, as Our Hero draws down on The Man. Priceless.
4. Green Eyed Lady — Sugarloaf
The hit version of this was never intended to see the light of day. It’s apparently a demo, recorded when the band was playing under its original name, Chocolate Hair. According to group member Bob Yeazel (who didn’t appear on the demo), the record company arbitrarily changed the band’s name to Sugarloaf, claiming that Chocolate Hair was racist. I used to think Hoobastank was the worst band name I’d ever heard, but now I don’t know. Lesson: Every once in a while, record-company suits know what they’re doing.
Here’s the current edition of Sugarloaf performing it live earlier this year.
3. Fire and Rain — James Taylor
In which the template for the 70s singer/songwriter is set in stone.
2. We’ve Only Just Begun — Carpenters
This is the kind of song that would end up in a commercial today, except it started out as one, for Crocker National Bank of California.
“We’ve Only Just Begun” was originally co-written and sung by Paul Williams, the songwriter and actor who was everywhere on TV in the 1970s and 1980s. Richard Carpenter recognized its hit potential, and he was right. It could have been worse — he might have tried to make a hit single out of “plop plop fizz fizz” or “my bologna has a first name.”
1. I’ll Be There — Jackson Five
You may remember this bit of the lyrics:
If you should ever find someone new
I know he better be good to you
‘Cause if he doesn’t
I’ll be there
By the rules of subject/verb agreement, Michael should sing “’cause if he isn’t.” But he doesn’t, because the final version of “I’ll Be There” seems to have been spliced together from two different recordings, one of which contains the lines “If you should ever find someone new/Just be sure he treats you true” — committing a different grammatical sin, yeah, but at least it makes “‘Cause if he doesn’t” work right. It sounds like the producers split the versions, and thereby ended up with a grammatical clunker that’s bugged me for nearly 40 years.
But that’s trivia for geeks. What is most significant about “I’ll Be There” is that a century from now, if there’s anyone around to recall it, Michael Jackson’s career will be defined by two records–-“Billie Jean” and “I’ll Be There.” Listeners a century hence will still relate to the breathtaking beauty of this melody and the innocence in Jackson’s voice. In the long run, they’ll be wrong about his innocence, of course, but for as long as it takes this record to play, it’s still intact.
Thanks so much to J.A. Bartlett for covering this week! I bet you had no idea that Tony Orlando hadn’t met the women of Dawn until after “Knock Three Times” topped the chart, did you? And had you ever thought about the grammatical issues surrounding the Jackson Five? I didn’t think so. So give thanks and we’ll see you soon for another edition of CHART ATTACK!