Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 1
Welcome to the first installment in our latest music extravaganza, Digging for Gold: The Time-Life AM Gold Series! Over the course of the next thousand or so entries, your beloved Popdose staff writers will listen to and chat about the roughly few hundred songs compiled in Time-Life Music‘s wildly popular AM Gold series. Each volume will be split into multiple posts so as not to blow your minds.
What we now know as AM Gold started in 1990 but was titled Superhits. Over the course of the original 20-disc series, Superhits chronicled many of America’s most beloved radio hits from 1962 — 1973, albeit with some notable exceptions (no Beatles!). Time-Life relaunched the collection as AM Gold in 1995 and proceeded to pump out volume after additional volume, including one dedicated solely to classic TV themes. The timeline of the series was expanded through to 1979, even though by that time AM was on its way out as the radio band of choice for music fans.
And so we begin with 1962. The Cold War was in full swing, the Cuban Missile Crisis heightened America’s fears of nuclear annihilation, Marilyn Monroe died at age 36, and an obscure comic book character named Spider-Man made his debut. So yeah, it was an interesting year in America.
But before we start, let’s offer a laurel and hearty handshake for Dave Steed, whose Bottom Feeders series was a cherished Wednesday morning institution here at Popdose. Thanks Dave!
#1: Neil Sedaka, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” – U.S. #1 for 2 weeks
Dw. Dunphy – Oddly enough, I kind of love the slowed down, lounge version of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” more than this. The bouncy, down-doobie-doo business doesn’t match the intent of the lyrics at all but, hey, 1962. If you gotta do it, do it with a smile.
David Lifton – I have a weakness for the 1962 version because I’m a sucker for low harmony. Dare I say it, but you can almost hear shades of “If I Fell” in it, even if The Beatles used a more complex chord progression.
Will Harris – There’s a reason this remains Sedaka’s signature song: it’s one of the greatest pre-Beatles pop songs of the 1960s…and, heck, it ranks pretty high even once you factor in the Fab Four! For a song that has such depressing lyrics (which are spotlighted to a much greater degree in Sedaka’s 1975 ballad-ized take on the track), the music is non-stop finger-snapping goodness. It’s no wonder that Elton John and the guys from 10cc latched onto his songs the way they did.
Chris Holmes - I didn’t even know there was a different Sedaka version of “Breaking Up” until yesterday, so I sought it out on YouTube. Clearly he was ahead of his time in reinterpreting pop songs as slow lounge numbers. I’m so used to the original I don’t know if I can handle the ’70s schmaltz in the newer approach. Sounds like the kind of thing Bread would release.
Lifton - The remake was one of the two songs from my musical past that I had wondered if I made it up because I hadn’t heard it for so long and nobody ever talked about it. The other one was “My Girl” by Chiliwack, which had morphed in my mind into “Touch Me” by The Doors.
Jack Feerick - I liked this one a lot more than I thought I did, or ever would. What makes it work, I think, is the sparsity of the instrumental backing. Many crossover attempts leaned on the orchestral flourishes of the old guard, and ended up sounding heavy and lumpen. By keeping it heavy on the drums and light on everything else — I didn’t hear any bass at all, either upright or electric — Sedaka keeps the focus squarely on the voices, and the whole thing is brisk and tight.
#2: Frank Ifield, “I Remember You” – #5 U.S., UK #1 for 7 weeks starting July 26; first released 1941
Jon Cummings – All I know about “I Remember You” is that it was on Vee-Jay Records, which also released many of the 1963 Beatles records that Capitol didn’t want. As part of my post-John’s-murder Beatlemania, I was so immersed in anything vaguely related to them that I can still envision the cover of an album called Jolly What! that paired Beatle tracks (repackaged for the umpteenth time) with live Ifield tracks. The cover featured a stereotypically “British” guy with a gigantic moustache, looking like a … walrus. I always wondered, “Is that Frank Ifield? How does he sing through that moustache?”
Harris - Pray, tell, was that in Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever? Because even without refreshing my memory and looking at the cover in question, I knew exactly what you were talking about.
Holmes - Fun fact – Frank Ifield had 4 #1 songs in the UK in the ’60s. That puts him at #6 for the decade, and ahead of the Kinks and Roy Orbison.
Feerick - I actually like Frank Ifield’s voice — the growl, the quaver, even the yodeling. Give him a slow prairie ballad, or Eddy Arnold’s “The Cattle Call,” and the guy would kill it. But he’s got nothing to work with here. Great stretches of this song seem like chords and phrases assembled at random. Seriously, this song is so bad it’s practically avant-garde. It’s like a laboratory experiment to determine the opposite of catchy.
Harris - Blame it on the redneck gene, but I still find it at least a little bit surprising that someone who was born in England and raised in Australia was able to so accurately capture the sound of such a decidedly American style of music as country and western. Upon listening to this yodeling cowboy, it suddenly becomes far less surprising that Slim Whitman was much bigger in Europe than he was here in the States.
#3: Mary Wells, “Two Lovers” – Hot 100 #7, R&B #1; written by Smokey Robinson
Feerick - …and there’s Mary Wells, standing with her boyfriend, who has suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, holding hands as they watch the Bank of America building explode in the distance. Flash cut of engorged genitalia as the Pixies roar up on the soundtrack.
Holmes – One thing is clear to me from the first batch of songs – Motown was operating on a whole different level in 1962. “Two Lovers” may not be the pinnacle of the Motown Sound, but the sophistication of the arrangement and performance in comparison to, say, “I Remember You,” is staggering.
Harris - Clearly, “written by Smokey Robinson” is about the same as “produced by Todd Rundgren,” in that there’s no question who’s ultimately responsible for the sound you’re hearing.
David Medsker – It’s fun to listen to these songs and try to see glimpses of the future, if there are any signs of the massive shifts both musically and culturally that were right around the corner. Neil Sedaka? Nope. That song is as square and squeaky clean as they come (though awfully catchy, too). Frank Ifield? That song is even whiter than Sedaka’s.
Mary Wells? YES. Within the first three notes of Wells’ vocal, I thought, “Smokey had to have written this.” (I skipped over the details of the songs in the first post.) Very cool sounding track, and quite the saucy lyrical content, too. The Drifters song is what I was expecting everything to sound like, while the Brian Hyland song is the forefather of “And I Love Her.” Love that major chord at the end. And they’re all under three minutes! Ahhhhh.
Holmes – The length of these songs is interesting to me. I came of age during the waning days of the album era, and if I saw a record with a bunch of 2-3 minute songs I would’ve felt cheated. Funny how time changes perspectives.
Cummings - “They’re all under three minutes!” Well, this is “AM Gold”…
The historical record has consigned 1962 to the early-’60s “Waiting for the Beatles” scrapheap, but the truth is that there was so much going on during that period. A lot of it isn’t hugely important, except in the context of what had come earlier and/or what came later, but a lot of it is really interesting.
Neil Sedaka, for example — huge part of the Brill Building story, which we now chart primarily through artists’ attachments to either Phil Spector or Carole King. But the Brill Building dominance over the pop of that time — teams of writer/producers creating music for cobbled-together singing groups and a whole lot of solo artists who proved to be flashes in the pan — places the early ’60s in a realm very much like our own, in terms of the pop-music machinery that worked best for the record labels and the mass audience.
And Motown was built on that model as well. We now think of it, rightfully, as the home of all those great artists of the mid-’60s, but during the period we’re covering here it was Berry Gordy and Smokey figuring out what sound, and what kinds of songs, were going to achieve the crossover breakthrough they were looking for. Mary Wells was among the first singers to get them close to their goal — “Two Lovers” was her third consecutive Top-10 hit, and pre-dates even “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” — though I think Wells, and the Marvelettes, were Motown’s first big successes as much because they fit within the girl-group dynamic as because they had great Motown-ish songs to sing.
Meanwhile, a guy like Brian Hyland (at least in retrospect) fits neatly in that stereotype of white-bread, cookie-cutter male singers who filled the gap between Elvis’ Army stint / Buddy Holly’s death /Chuck Berry’s arrest / Jerry Lee’s marriage / etc. and the Beatles’ arrival — in other words, the early-’60s Dark Ages that came between the Roman Empire of early rock ‘n’ roll and the Renaissance of the British Invasion. That whole theme is overly simplistic, not to mention profoundly unfair to Roy Orbison and Dion, but it remains the conventional thinking.
If you think about it, though, some of these records were harbingers of things to come. The Beatles’ early records were built, in part, on girl groups and early Motown; meanwhile, Frank Ifield (as I noted earlier in the thread) became connected tangentially to their early U.S. success. “Up On the Roof,” great at it is on its own merits, represents a point on the transition line from R&B to soul at Atlantic Records. It’s difficult to divorce a song like “Two Lovers,” which isn’t really a standout, from the context of its place in Motown’s evolution. And listening to “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” even though it’s milquetoasty, calls up all sorts of historical elements — from the doo-wop influences of the girl-group sound (the Cookies sing the background vocals) to ’70s adult contemporary (because it’s now impossible to divorce Sedaka’s two versions from each other). There’s also Sedaka’s connection with Carole King (they dated for awhile), which places Neil in the grand sweep of ’60s pop that led to the singer-songwriters (at least if your view of it is corrupted by the King-as-Forrest-Gump revisionist history of that film Grace of My Heart).
Dunphy - By the way, I love the idea of the three minute pop song. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out, sweep the floor.
Holmes - My father is a huge proponent of this approach as well. When I try to play him longer songs he gets restless.
Harris - Once upon a time, I wrote for a ‘zine called POPsided, and their slogan was “Some of our best friends are three minutes long.”
Great little publication. I wish it had lasted longer. I was introduced to a lot of great power pop obscurities through those guys.
Dunphy - Mary Wells is one of those Motown names that people recognize, immediately reply “My Guy,” and the pretty much ends the conversation. It’s really sad that she didn’t have a huge influence on the label, but at the same time, only one female Motown artist really did: Diana Ross.
So the question I have to ask is, did Diana rise in the ranks because of her talent (which, to be fair, cannot be denied) or because of her relationship with Berry Gordy which would have afforded her access no other artist on the label had?
Michael Heyliger – It was both. Diana was Berry’s “Teacher’s Pet” (in more ways than one), and the fact of the matter is that the teacher’s pet always gets more TLC than the rest of the students.
For Mary Wells (career-wise, anyway), it was probably a bad move to look at her Motown contract and see that she was getting royally screwed, because after she left Motown, she never had another major hit. I’d imagine she was blackballed to an extent.
Dunphy - What’s more upsetting is that toward her end, her arc was equally screwed. She finally got off a heroin addiction and, for her reward for doing so, found out about the cancer that eventually killed her.
Lifton - I’m surprised that this was such a big hit, because I don’t recall hearing this song before now. But Will’s right, it does have those classic Smokey touches all over it. Wells even sounds like him, especially on “…and he’s mine, all mine.” Do we know if that’s The Miracles on background vocals?
#4: The Drifters, “Up on the Roof” – Hot 100 #5, R&B #4; co-written by Carole King
Holmes - “Up on the Roof” is excellent of course, but sounds like a holdover from the ’50s.
Dunphy – You’re right about “Up On The Roof” — I love it and, particularly, I love the yin and yang of The Drifters and The Coasters, where one was super smooth and polished, and the other was totally free to be goofy. At this time period though, I’m guessing Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler were having an identity crisis concerning Atlantic Records…
Feerick - Am I wrong to want this version to sound more like the Carole King demo or even, God help me, the James Taylor version? As a peppy, quasi-Latin number, it’s got plenty of charm — but slowed down to ballad tempo, it conjures the dreamy, peaceful feeling promised by the lyric. And can you imagine if the lead vocal had just a little more space to breathe here? He would have crushed this.
Then again, I am a cranky old man and I think everybody plays everything too fast.
Harris - Official: I can no longer hear any version of this song without immediately thinking of the version Neil Diamond recorded for his Brill Building tribute album. Even now, I can hear him hollering, “Look at those stars, darlin’!”
Lifton - What can you say about this without resorting to cliche? It’s the Brill Building and Atlantic firing on all cylinders. Absolute perfection.
#5: Brian Hyland, “Sealed With a Kiss” – #3 US & UK; Hyland’s first top 10 single since “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”
Feerick - My ears feel all sticky now.
Harris - One of the saddest songs EVER. Granted, the impact of the track is somewhat diminished in 2011, when the idea of star-crossed lovers only being able to communicate via a handwritten letter is virtually inconceivable…but, then, I’m old, so that’s probably why I can totally feel the pain that comes through in Hyland’s vocal. I’m sure he still pinches himself every night that he was able to transition from a novelty hit like “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” into having a proper top-5 hit. By the way, Wikipedia informs me that Hyland was in Dallas on the day that JFK was assassinated. Do we have confirmation of his whereabouts?
(“Sergeant, we have a former teen idol on the grassy knoll, he is armed and dangerous, repeat, armed and dangerous…”)
Holmes – Never thought about the Beatles comparison for “Sealed With a Kiss.” This type of melancholy pop seems to have fallen out of favor a long time ago. Could a song in this vein make it big today?
Medsker – No.
Lifton - I never knew the name of this song, mostly because I always turned it off right after the opening line. At least now I can call it by its proper name instead of, “That godawful ‘say goodbye to the summer’ song.”
Terje Fjelde – You don’t want to hear Agnetha Faltskog’s version of it, then? Stock Aitken Waterman’s, perhaps? No?
Dunphy - Good God, are you serious?
Lifton - Thanks. I’m good.
Medsker - Holy cow! That Jason Donovan cover is, well, something.
Is it just me, or does anyone think of singing “Hello darkness, my old friend” over the first seven notes in the verse?
Tony Redman – It’s hard for me to hear the song “Sealed with a Kiss” and not think about this commercial:
Holmes - Something tells me that Dom’s zucchini and broccoli never left that freezer again.
Dunphy - Oh, I dunno. Depends on how many bricks of Velveeta he had in the ‘fridge.