Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 25
And so here we are — AM Gold: 1968. The debate over Time-Life’s track selection rages on, and is unlikely to be settled any time soon. We would love to get some insight from Time-Life on why certain songs and bands were highlighted over others in this series, so if any fans of this series can help hook us up with someone from the company that would be keen!
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#1: The Rascals, “A Beautiful Morning” – #3 U.S.; the group’s fifth Top 10 single in America.
Dw. Dunphy - When you think critically about it, this song is not much more than a “Groovin’” knockoff. The melody, while set against a different rhythm, is so similar to me that it hardly seems like they were working on it. So yes, the song is easy listening goodness and if it sounds like an effortless product, I have to agree. No sweat was broken here.
Jon Cummings - Another brain fart from the good folks at Time-Life. “It’s a Beautiful Morning” — of course! I can’t imagine a song that better sums up what people were thinking in 1968 … what with the Tet offensive, MLK and RFK, the student riots in Paris, race riots across the US, the Democratic convention, Nixon…
Anyway, a propos of nothing (which is what this song must have seemed back then, just as it does now), this is a nice song, and meets the Rascals’ usual high standard. As a Southerner growing up, this was more music to shag by — that would be shagging in the sense of the “beach music”-related dance, not the Austin Powers sense.
David Lifton – I don’t know, Jon. It was a #3 hit, so people obviously were listening to it. When I interviewed Glen Campbell a few years ago (who comes along in a few weeks), we talked about the idea that his songs were popular because they were contemplative at a time when there was so much turbulence. Pop music is not only a reflection of the times, it can also be a reaction against the times. You and I may disagree with the opinions of the Silent Majority, but it did exist, and they were entitled to their musical likes and dislikes. Remember, again, that we’re dealing with AM pop, where the tone was lighter and less political. It’s unlikely that “Sympathy For The Devil,” which sonically defines my second-hand knowledge of 1968, was played on AM radio.
Besides, as you pointed out, it’s a perfectly good pop song, so why wouldn’t people want to listen to it?
Cummings - I’m well aware of the thematic limitations (however haphazardly applied) of defining an anthology as “AM Gold” — particularly in a year like ’68, when FM was new and awesome and any music with teeth was rapidly moving over to the new dial. But I’m still unconvinced, just as I was the last time I brought up this subject. For me, it’s all about song choices and sequencing, just as it was on the ’67 set. Looking at that previous album, which we finished discussing last week, the Time-Life folks obviously wanted to make a statement (about gravitas, or social consciousness, or something) by concluding it with “Ode to Billie Joe” — so why didn’t they move things around (or make a couple better song choices) to make a more interesting statement about ’67 at the BEGINNING of the album?
Similarly, as we’ll explore in more detail in about a month, “AM Gold 1968″ concludes with a triple whammy of “Abraham, Martin & John,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and “Dock of the Bay.” Saving Otis’ last hit for the end was certainly appropriate, but why would the sequencers save “Grapevine” for the penultimate cut while starting with a bit of fluff like “It’s a Beautiful Morning”? It’s peachy to include the Rascals on this set … they’re a great band, and they were chart-toppers throughout ’67 and ’68 … but if you’re looking for a Rascals hit to lead off an album representing 1968, why wouldn’t you pick “People Got To Be Free”?
(Of course, Time-Life did exactly that with the “AM Gold: Late ’60s Classics” CD, which we’ll hopefully cover someday — but that just opens up another whole can of worms concerning the way they organized this series into both annual and multi-year editions, and what they could possibly have been thinking when they did.) All I’m saying is, if I had been organizing all these albums, I would have wanted the leadoff track on the 1968 edition to say something about the culture of the time, in a way that “Beautiful Morning” simply doesn’t … but “People Got To Be Free,” or “Grapevine,” or even “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” might easily have done.
Dunphy - Top of my head? Licensing restrictions. One song by a group is a contribution. Two or more is a compilation. One has much different financial implications over the other. It can’t be too different than what internet radio stations go through by not being allowed to play a single artist’s stuff in too close a succession.
Cummings - Maybe, Dw. — except that the 1966 edition doubled up on the Lovin’ Spoonful, and the ’67 set had two Bee Gees hits. Again, the organization of these CDs is almost maddeningly haphazard and counterintuitive. Though I have to admit that maybe I’m doing all this grousing because I buy in too much to the received wisdom that the music of the late ’60s “meant something” in the way pop rarely did before or since.
#2: Classics IV, “Spooky” – #3 U.S., #46 U.K.
Cummings - I didn’t know until just now about the close connection between Classics IV and Atlanta Rhythm Section, beyond both outfits having recorded this song. Three members of Classics IV later joined ARS, and the guy who wrote “Spooky” and the rest of the Classics IV ouevre went on to produce all of ARS’s albums. All of that said, I greatly prefer ARS’s version of this song. The vocalist here (Dennis Yost) didn’t seem to take it seriously — not the way he later sang the much-better “Stormy,” and not the way ARS’s Ronnie Hammond did later. And maybe it’s because I loved ARS’s version when it was out, but I like the sexiness Hammond brought to it much more than the bubblegumminess Yost did.
Dunphy - I agree with Jon that while this song is okay, it is just okay in this form. The vocals are suffering from those weird dipthongs that seemed to pop up in so much late 1960s songs. “Luv is kanda creezy with a spookay little girl lack yew…” Mmmm hmmm, okay, whatever.
It does make you wonder, if Classics IV begat Atlanta Rhythm Section, what begat Classics I-through-III, if this is what gave George Lucas stupid ideas, and if we should be grateful because Classics I-III probably sucked. Or else I’m overthinking this again.
Lifton – I like this one, mainly because of the chords. They’ve got a Kind-Of-Jazzy-Like-The-Zombies thing about them – a sixth here or a minor ninth there (I’m not sure if those are the actual chords, but it gives off that effect). Without them, it’s pretty much a minor-key blues in the vein of “Secret Agent Man.”
Dunphy, I think those vocal sounds were from all those singers trying to channel Jagger at the time.
#3: José Feliciano, “Light My Fire” – #3 U.S., #6 U.K.
Dunphy - I’m sure Jose Feliciano is a nice fella. I like my “Feliz Navidad” just fine and his theme from Chico and The Man was okay as well. But I’m not a fan of The Doors and, man, do I hate this track. It really has nothing to do with the Doors either, and if I had heard the song independently from that knowledge, I’d still squirm like a worm having to sit through it.
Evidence one – No matter how smooth and latin-sexy Jose attempts to make it sound, there’s nothing that says, “Do Me” less than “…and our love become a funeral pyre.” Maybe Type O Negative or Cradle of Filth might disagree, but sexytime and mortuaries don’t mix and I don’t care what Six Feet Under said about that.
Evidence two – That ending. Seriously? Repeating “Light my fire, light my fire” over and over and over again was a good idea? You’re sure about that, because I have SEVERE DOUBTS.
There are plenty of other charges I could level at this, but I’ll just wrap it in a bow by saying, sometimes, a bad idea is a bad idea, and no amount of sincerity could alter it. Light my, light my, light, light, light my fire.
Chris Holmes - I didn’t hear José’s take on “Light My Fire” until about five years ago, when it popped up on WCBS-FM (New York’s Oldies station). When he started that whole “light my fire, light my fire, light my fire” bit at the end my wife and I started cracking up. Made the whole thing sound like even more of a novelty song.
Lifton - I love Feliciano’s guitar. I hate everything else about it. But every time I think of Feliciano I feel a need to watch this beautiful trainwreck, which will undoubtedly cause Cummings’ head to explode.
Cummings - I love this record. I love everything about it, but what I love best — beyond the guitar, which is exquisite — is the way it revealed the song’s universality apart from Morrison’s bombast. I usually think of this record in the same thought as Richie Havens’ version of “Here Comes the Sun,” as stylized folk-izations of key elements of the rock canon. For all my carping about the sequencing on these CDs, they pulled a nifty little trick by placing “Light My Fire” back to back with “Spooky” — because the chord changes Jose plays on the bridge are very similar to those on the verses of “Spooky.”
As for the medley, Dave — I was on board, even with the Bing-sings-the-Beatles tripe, right up until “Hey Jude.” A couple thoughts, though: First, I’m absolutely certain Bing never left a sleeping bag rolled up behind anybody’s couch. Second, all this is missing is a drum-machine that might have turned it into a disco sizzler. All in all, I’m glad I experienced it — though for sheer cringe-worthiness it doesn’t hold a candle to that Cher-and-Bowie medley I linked to a few years ago.
#4: Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ’66, “The Look of Love” – #4 U.S.
Lifton - Despite the fact that the two female lead singers cooing adds, um, a different dimension (at least until the dudes join in on the chorus), this still has nothing on Dusty Springfield’s version.
Cummings - The arrangement on the choruses here is just a mess! It sounds like all those vocal counterpoints and horns have been smashed up together at the dead-end of an alley, like that marching band in the parade scene of “Animal House.” Yet another Bacharach-David song that I can’t get behind like everyone else does — though Dusty’s vocal on her version is so sensuous it’s boner-inducing.
#5: Spanky & Our Gang, “Like to Get to Know You” – #17 U.S.
Lifton - Ugh. It sounds like the writer came up with the hook for the chorus and forgot to write the rest of the song. It must have been a huge influence on will.i.am.
Dunphy - Is this the last of Spanky’s time in the sun? This song is, again, pretty but wearying. Repetition gets the dirty look here because, truly, how many times must one hear “I’d like to get to know you, yes I do…”?
Then the rhythm changes and you think you’ll get reprieve but, no. Back to the same lines. Pretty. Boring. Pretty boring.
Cummings - I had never heard this before. I have to admit I was hoping it was gonna turn out to be the Howard Jones song of the same name. If anything could liven up ol’ Panky, it would be some nice burbling synths. Sadly, no dice. There’s so little going on here — but then comes that odd instrumental break at the 2-minute mark, followed by a faux-jazzy-psychedelic abstraction of the song’s hook (such as it is) during the fade out. The open space at the beginning of that instrumental break must have challenged DJs at the time — “Am I so bored by this song that I’ll cut it off right here and put on ‘Tighten Up’ one more time?”