We’ve got some familiar names to review this week. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles return, as of course we’ve got another chart triumph for the team of Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, and Hal David. And let’s welcome the Bee Gees to AM Gold. Although their commercial dominance of the 1970s can’t be ignored by music fans, it can by Time-Life. So this week’s Bee Gees tune is one of but a handful in the series.
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#6: Spanky and Our Gang, “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” – #9 U.S.
Jon Cummings – This song is otay, ‘Panky (somebody was going to do it, so I thought I’d just get it out of the way), but certainly not the first (or even the sixth, considering where we are on this CD) song I think of when I think of 1967. The chorus must have been enough of a hook to get it to the Top 10, because there’s not much going on here — not with the song, and not with the group, which is like a cruise-ship version of the Mamas & the Papas. (And, of course, the Ms&Ps hopped on board in the early ’80s when they hired ‘Panky to replace Mama Cass.) I had never bothered to figure out what this song’s about … and as it turns out, it’s not about very much. Apparently ‘Panky used to meet some guy in the park on Sundays, but now he doesn’t show up anymore. Heartbreaking! So it’s sorta like the inverse of “Bus Stop.” Anyway, before I checked the lyrics I was just reading in Whitburn that not one, but two of Our Gang died of liver failure before their 30th birthdays — so I was figuring that “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” had something to do with the end of “blue laws” banning liquor sales on the sabbath.
Dw. Dunphy – Why was there such a fascination with Alfalfa and Co. back in the midlates? You had Young Rascals/Little Rascals, Our Gang/Spanky and Our Gang…What’s up with that? All I can say is “re-maaaaarkable.”
Enough of that.
“Sunday Will Never Be The Same” was to be one of the topics of my Big Songs series for Popdose. The column never took off and so the subject languished, but it is a worthy entrant. The thing opens with a jaunty, chamber-poppy fake out, having nothing much of anything to do with the sound of the rest of the song. The arrangement and that big, booming voice of Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane (no relation to Spanky McFarland of the actual Our Gang).
McFarlane was suitably Cass-like in her delivery; so much so that after Cass’s death and past the shelf life of this group, she toured with the Mamas and the Papas as the fill-in singer on those songs. Knowing my feelings about all that, we’ll quickly move on to another subject.
David Lifton – I’m looking at this video, and rather than focus on the song, which is perfectly pleasant but also forgettable, I’ve noticed a few other things:
1) Those are some sweet-looking guitars, not the usual Fenders or Gibsons that you usually see. But since it’s lip-synced (and guitars aren’t even prominent in the song), I have no idea what they sound like.
2) Between the headgear and the facial hair, they look way too much like an indie band from Williamsburg.
3) Holy crap, they covered “Suzanne!”
#7: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, “I Second That Emotion” – #4 U.S., the group’s highest-charting single since “Shop Around” hit #2 in ’60.
Cummings – I came across “The Big Chill” on TV yesterday and for some reason couldn’t pull myself away. It’s terrible! But in the process of making us Gen-Xers wonder how seriously fucked up our parents must be, it also introduced us to “I Second That Emotion,” which up to then had not been among Smokey’s most-played oldies. So, thank goodness for that, because “ISTE” is maybe the most groovin’ of all the Miracles’ singles. This was a great year for Smokey, between this, “More Love,” and “Tears of a Clown” (though the latter wasn’t released as a single til 1970, it appeared first on an LP in ’67).
Dunphy – Of Smokey’s songs, I think my qualms with “I Second That Emotion” is because of the pun and that it has been used so often after this tune’s release. Since I wasn’t around when it came out, I can only speculate that people thought it was incredibly clever wordplay. Now I hear it and it just sounds half-hearted and lyrically lazy. Smokey himself sounds terrific as usual, but exterior forces like time and the abuse of a catchy line/concept have done this song no favors.
Cummings – Allow me to go all meta for a minute here, as relates to “I Second That Emotion” and Dw.’s worries about the “added stress” of soundtrack inclusion. Unlike the use of “Sister Christian” in “Boogie Nights,” or “Cry to Me” in “Dirty Dancing,” or practically any song in any Tarantino movie — all songs that were re-contextualized by the scenes they accompanied — the music in “The Big Chill” was there to evoke nothing more than “the songs these people loved when they were young and carefree.” (I suppose that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which for millions was re-contextualized as suicide-funeral music, is the exception.) But in the same sense that the film itself became boomer iconography — for good and for evil — those songs, and that soundtrack, became “the boomers’ greatest hits, as selected for ‘The Big Chill.'” That designation was an easy one to bestow upon “My Girl” or “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and others that were still radio staples when the film came out in 1983 — but it did wonders to revive interest in “I Second That Emotion,” which til then had been largely lost in the shuffle of bigger Motown hits. And that’s its “added stress,” and its somewhat odd legacy, at least for listeners of A Certain Age. It’s not “that song the drug dealer went all Scarface to” or “that song Baby lost her virginity to” — it’s “that song we all forgot about until ‘The Big Chill’ told us it was one of the boomers’ greatest hits.”
Lifton – I agree with Dunphy that it sounds like he’s running on autopilot here. “Kisses sweet” is surprisingly awkward for someone as conversational as Smokey, especially on an opening line. And the meter in the last line of the verse is off. Yet it works for the same reasons that all of Smokey’s songs do – that voice and the Funk Brothers, especially the recently deceased Marv Tarplin playing that irresistible guitar lick.
#8: Keith, “98.6” – #7 U.S., #24 U.K.
Cummings – Because I don’t find this single even slightly interesting — apart from the chorus, which at least has some vaguely amusing wordplay about body temperature — I wandered over to Wikipedia to learn that 1) Keith once encountered John Lennon in a men’s room and got a complimentary slap on the back, hopefully not creating extra work for the custodial staff; 2) Keith dodged the draft in order to go on tour, then was caught and inducted (but not sent to ‘Nam); and 3) Keith was inducted into the Mothers of Invention for a short time. Much later he changed his name to honor his mama. Sweet.
Lifton – I’ve never heard this song before and I have no need to hear it again.
Dunphy – I don’t recall Keith at all. I’ll have to listen to this tonight because, unlike everyone else in this batch, he utterly failed to connect.
1) Keith once encountered John Lennon in a men’s room and got a complimentary slap on the back, hopefully not creating extra work for the custodial staff;
Oh, that Lennon is a pisser, isn’t he?
2) Keith dodged the draft in order to go on tour, then was caught and inducted (but not sent to ‘Nam);
…Into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, just to make Geddy Lee angry.
3) Keith was inducted into the Mothers of Invention for a short time. Much later he changed his name to honor his mama.
Momma Mothers Keith?
#9: Dionne Warwick, “I Say a Little Prayer” – #4 U.S.
Cummings – I’m well-established as the naysayer when it comes to the unholy Bacharach/David/Warwick trinity, and while there’s no denying the greatness of this song, that greatness has nothing to do with this single. I hate hate HATE the way Warwick enunciates, and the trumpet is unbearable. (Is it Herb Alpert, or just an amazing simulation?) Thank heavens for Aretha, and her ability to transform Dionne’s Wonder bread into pure soul! I wish ReRe hadn’t relied so thoroughly on her backing vocalists (the Sweet Inspirations) in the choruses of her version, but at least they came by their call-and-response choices naturally — they only decided to record the track after the SIs had been playing around with it during warmups for another song. They bring the song an urgency and a commitment that Warwick wasn’t capable of, and what’s more, they sound like they’re having fun — and if there’s one thing that never comes out of a B/D/W collaboration, it’s a sense of fun. Frankly, I’d rather watch that awful rehearsal-dinner scene from “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” with Rachel Griffiths and her bug eyes, than listen to Warwick sing this song.
Dunphy – “I Say A Little Prayer” suffers much as “I Second That Emotion” does in that it has become this fallback for even lazier romantic comedy montages. Need some emotional uplift that sounds pretty and doesn’t get too sentimental? Plug in “I Say A Little Prayer” and, boom, done. Have Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and, heck why not, Renee Zellweger as the feisty best friend dance to it while renovating the living room. Throw pillows everywhere! Tee Hee!
It’s an interesting thought-game though, about how a song if it has the opportunity to last long enough and be integrated into pop culture deep enough, will also have to bear the weight of time. It is not enough to just write a song to fit the demeanor of the period in which it was written, but to be sturdy enough to carry whatever connotations its snowball picks up as it rolls forward.
Without digressing too far, Night Ranger did not write “Sister Christian” with a forethought of how it would be used in Boogie Nights; neither did Donovan think “Atlantis” would soundtrack a brutal physical attack in GoodFellas all the way back in the hippy-dippy ’60s, back when he was lovin’ his mellow saffron yellow shirt and blowin’ your little mind.
All this is merely to say that even though “I Second That Emotion” and “I Say A Little Prayer” hold up remarkably well under this added stress, it is important to note that any good work will need to continue to reflect a culture if it is to keep from disappearing. That reflection might not service the product in the most positive way, but relevance has to continue for the product to continue…otherwise it is just unknown noise on one of Edison’s wax cylinders.
Lifton – You’re right, Cummings. Aretha does rely heavily on the Sweet Inspirations, especially on the chorus, where the time signature goes back-and-forth between 7/4 and 4/4. In other words, Aretha basically said, “I’m just gonna sing ‘Forever’ and throw in a few of my famous gospel shouts and let them do all the work on the difficult parts,” which makes it one of the greatest diva moments in recorded history.
Dionne, on the other hand, navigates the rhythms wonderfully, and I like the reading she gives it. It’s not an urgent lyric, it’s contemplative, and she conveys that. OK, so she’s not a gospel-based soul belter, but Bacharach/David weren’t writing songs like Hayes/Porter or Penn/Oldham. And both her and her records should be judged on what they are, not on what they’re not.
Oh, and Jon? Who founded the Sweet Inspirations? That’s right, Cissy Houston, Dionne’s aunt. Point, Warwick family.
Cummings – That’s all well and good, Dumbledore — Slytherin has to pick up some points here and there. And I would never knock Cissy. Thank goodness she had the good sense to hitch her wagon to Aretha, not her own niece.
Lifton – Nerd.
#10: Bee Gees, “To Love Somebody” – #17 U.S., #41 U.K., the group’s American chart debut.
Cummings – The best song Barry and Robin ever wrote. (Discuss!) The first version I heard, and still my favorite, is the one on “Here At Last … Bee Gees … Live!” because the phrasing in the chorus is more clipped than on the single. This song is so awesome, not even Michael Bolton could ruin it completely, though he gave it his best shot. (Amusingly, the Wiki page for “To Love Somebody” lists three dozen artists who have covered the song, from Clay Aiken to Bocephus, but doesn’t mention Shouty McShouty-Pants.) I’ve always wondered how much of the “they wrote this for Otis, but he died before he could record it” legend is truthful, considering Otis had at least one recording session after the Bee Gees released this as a single.
Holmes – I’ve tried many times to gain an appreciation for early Bee Gees, but I can’t do it. Most of it is way too mannered and stuffy. “To Love Somebody” is one of the happy exceptions to that, and really is a great tune. Still, give me “Nights on Broadway” any day.
Dunphy – As Chris noted, the Bee Gees were a friggin’ mopey bunch in the early days, treading a line between European/Australian pop (because I suppose we can’t consider them properly a British Invasion band) and your near-suicidal uncle that only wants to talk about everyone that is dead now and how the present days sucks the big one.
“I Started a Joke”? Really?
But this song is super-pretty and rises above their maudlin weepiness of that period.
“I’ve Just Got To Get A Message To You” is about someone about to be executed? Come on! Gimme a break!
And “To Love Somebody,” while showing zero indication of possibility of the band’s disco megastardom less than a decade later, did hint occasionally on that sphincter-shriveling falsetto that would become the hallmark of their sound. Listen to that adlib close to the end of the track, not quite at the precipice, but truly showing an inclination to go there. By the ’70s, the Brothers Gibb would be rocking that eunuch sound like mofos.
“Massachussetts” is about what? You guys are DEPRESSING.
Lifton – When I heard Barry talk about how they wrote this for Otis, I tried to imagine how it would sound. It wasn’t too difficult because Barry’s phrasing on the verses is so much like Otis’ here. But then you think of how Otis would have exploded on the chorus, and you feel sad about what a missed opportunity it was.