Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 27
Wow. This is not a good week. “From the Time-Life Collection, we bring you Unmemorable Songs! Just listen!” – Dw. Dunphy
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#11: Bobby Goldsboro, “Honey” – #1 U.S. Hot 100 and Hot Country.
Jon Cummings - Ah, here it is … the Worst #1 Song of the ’60s. (BTW, that post is a gift that keeps on giving, in terms of the vitriol I get from Doors fans in the comments section.)
David Lifton - Every bad thing about “Honey” has already been said, so instead I’ll point out the one good thing out it: it’s not “Watching Scotty Grow.”
Dw. Dunphy - Well they just don’t write them like this any more. Good grief, Time Life could probably make an entirely separate collection involving songs about dead loves and dirt poor girls. And wasn’t Goldsboro some kind of heartthrob back then (or am I mixing him up with Bobby Sherman)? Either way, I find the song wrong in so many ways, like the “she was dumb, but she was smart” bit which refuses to leave me. “Hey Honey, my dead Honey. I miss you, but damn. You were pretty stupid sometimes.”
Nothing like thinly veiled misogyny and inappropriate father-figure roles to mark you as a song from the late Sixties, is there?
Cummings - “Kinda dumb, but kinda smart”: I remember when I was a kid listening to “Honey,” I kept trying to read the tea leaves and figure out how she died (beyond, you know, “the angels came”). Because he said she was “kinda dumb,” I always imagined a household accident involving a bandsaw, or some sort of electrocution involving crying too many tears during the late, late show. Did she slip in the snow again, and this time clonk her head on the sidewalk? Did the puppy maul her? Or maybe she fell out of that damn tree! And Bobby, why weren’t you home when she died? What’s the matter with you?
Dunphy - He was off “bein’ good.”
Makes you say, hmmmmmmm?
Jack Feerick – When a song is as bad as “Honey” is (and I think it’s one of the worst we’ve covered in this series), I think it’s worth looking at precisely why it fails. You can see what songwriter Bobby Russell is trying to do — to sketch a portrait of a longstanding relationship by looking at snapshots of individual moments — and it’s got a venerable tradition in pop music, stretching back to Tin Pan Alley standards like “Thanks for the Memories” and “These Foolish Things.” But he makes some truly awful and baffling choices here.
Honey is supposed to come off sentimental and impulsive, a kind spirit who doesn’t always think things through; too good for this world, which is why the angels came and took her away. And the narrator’s reactions are meant to indicate that her essential innocence fills him with joy. But the specifics that Russell gives us — Honey’s unexplained crying jags, her being “so afraid that [he]’d be mad,” her multiple accidents, her precarious health and unexplained death — don’t quite add up the way he wants them to. They sound kind of like symptoms, to be frank, possibly of a mental illness.
Now, that could have been interesting. There are some fascinating memoirs about the joys and challenges of loving someone who is bipolar, or brain-damaged, or developmentally disabled, and I would quite like to hear a pop song smart enough and brave enough to tackle a similar subject. I don’t know if that’s what Russell was playing at here. I have a sneaking suspicion that it might have been; Honey was “always young at heart,” after all, and not so long ago, “young for [her] age” was a gentle euphemism for “mentally retarded.”
But in the end, the song is neither smart nor brave, but rather icky. Because there’s no way that a man who laughs at his wife — that’s how he puts it, not “We laughed together,” or “She made me laugh,” but “I laughed at her” — is going to come off as anything but a contemptuous asshole.
Dunphy - Now I’m hearing a mash-up between this and Richard Thompson’s “Grey Walls” in my head. Nutty.
Feerick - I long ago learned that there are only two kinds of songs in the world: Richard Thompson songs, and songs that remind me of Richard Thompson songs.
Cummings - I don’t think there was any intent to characterize Honey as “retarded” or “simple” (as the phrases were then), or “bipolar,” a word which I’m not sure existed in 1968. I think Russell intended to characterize her as a WOMAN — and in those days it was still at least vaguely acceptable for a man to look upon a woman as naturally inferior intellectually. But now that you mention it, jeez, if women didn’t have enough reason to burn their bras before, “Honey” must have done the trick. Phyllis Schlafly probably loved it, though.
Feerick - Oh, bipolar disorder was certainly known in 1968, but you’re right — it wasn’t called that at the time. As every Jimi Hendrix fan knows, the term in favor back in the day was “manic depression.”
Dunphy - I can’t imagine anything quite so patronizing and infantilizing (?) coming out now. We’ve moved on to love songs that are much more civilized like Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love”–yuck.
#12: B.J. Thomas, “Hooked on a Feeling” – #5 U.S.; infamously covered by David Hasselhoff in the ’90s.
Dunphy - This got covered pretty quickly by Blue Swede in the 1970′s, but I can’t have too many hard feelings about the original. It’s okay, and enters that all-too brief period when Thomas was more than tolerable. Is this my preferred version? No, I must admit a weakness for the Swede’s ridiculous “hooga gotcha hooga hooga” chant.
Cummings - Ooga, ooga, ooga … no chock-a??? Oh, right – we’re dealing here with the nice, sane, no-dancing-baby, original version of this song. Thank goodness! I gotta admit, I had never really processed the presence of the sitar (or, at least, the faux-sitar) on this track. “Listen, B.J. If you want to guarantee that this song crosses over from country radio, you’re gonna have to toss into the mix something that will appeal to the kids. What say I grab Ravi Shankar out of the studio next door, and see what he can do?”
Lifton - This is another one of those songs that has things I can appreciate without actually liking the song. Overall the song is fine, but it sounds like a by-product of its era. But I prefer this to the Blue Swede version because it doesn’t bludgeon the listener. The Coral electric sitar give a nice touch, even if would be used to greater effect by Steely Dan on “Do It Again.” I like the four bars that lead into the chorus, with that ascending chromatic riff that John Lennon used a lot (“Isolation” is one example). That’s always a great way to create some musical tension when there’s not a lot of vocal range involved. And I’ve written plenty of times here about my love of low harmonies.
Feerick – My older sister had the 45 of this, and I’ve liked it since I was a kid. The main point of interest for me here is the way that “Hooked On A Feeling” makes the signifiers of psychedelic rock — the super-hot Hammond organ, the electric sitar — safe for Adult Contemporary. I hear it especially in the way the sitar is basically playing blues licks. It’s old wine in new bottles, but pretty tasty for all that.
I have to wonder, though, how this lyric played to a 1968 audience. Dope culture was just starting to come overground; it wasn’t so long since the news magazines were still putting terms like “hooked” and “high” in quotation marks, and seeing a child fall into drug addiction was every parent’s worst fear. In that context, did “Hooked on a Feeling” come off as flippant, or as skirting with poor taste?
For comparison, think about the first time you heard The The’s “Infected,” released at the height of the public health crisis surrounding the AIDS pandemic, and wrapped around the chorus line “Infect me with your love.” I laughed at the brazenness of that, even as I was appalled.
#13: The 5th Dimension, “Stoned Soul Picnic” – #3 U.S.; written by Laura Nyro.
Cummings - Stoned? Nope. Soul? Not even a little! Picnic? Well, I suppose there’s some sassafras and moonshine floating around, but there’s nary a sandwich to be found. I’m going home — or, at least, after 30 seconds of listening to this atrocity I’m clicking over to Laura Nyro’s infinitely superior original version. Hers doesn’t make any more sense, but at least it’s got some (white-singer/songwriter-girl) soul to it.
Lifton - No matter how many times I’ve tried over the years, I’ve never understood the cult of Laura Nyro. Her work has always struck me as being innovative without having anything interesting to say. This song is no exception, and here it’s given the 5th Dimension’s typical treatment of bland professionalism. I’m not sure if that’s an improvement.
David Allen Jones - You guys kill me, hating on Laura Nyro and the 5th Dimension. Yeah, I know there’s a lot of New Main Street Singers in the 5D’s approach, but still. I guess you would have to have been 8 years old in 1968 and hear the frigging song everywhere to really appreciate the whole completely in my mind rosy haze of nostalgia thing.
Lifton - I don’t hate the 5th Dimension. They had lush arrangements and gorgeous harmonies. It’s hippie music for people who don’t like hippies. But Nyro’s appeal escapes me. Everybody says that she never got the credit for pioneering the female singer-songwriter movement because her debut came before Joni Mitchell and Carole King, but maybe that’s because those other two did it so much better.
Dunphy - I will say this about the 5th Dimension, to backtrack from my negativity about “Stoned Soul Picnic”: They recorded two songs I think are absolutely gorgeous pop tunes, being “One Less Bell To Answer” and “Wedding Bell Blues.” Most people, including myself, forget or gloss over the fact they did these songs and only hear the sheer vanillaness of “Up, Up and Away” or “Age of Aquarius.” The two earlier mentions don’t even sound like the same group to me and show how extraordinary Marilyn McCoo could be.
Feerick – I never quite got Laura Nyro, either, but this — which, somehow, I don’t think I’d ever heard before — helps me to get at what she was trying to do, I think. It’s not really a lyric, is it? It’s more of a chant, a string of repeated, disconnected images that don’t add up to a narrative. Sing a phrase, sing it again, meditate on it for a while, add another, circle back and circle ‘round, each phrase like a single bead on a Rosary.
Hare Krishna, hare Krishna, hare Krishna, hare Rama, hare, hare…
Amen, amen, amen amen amen, alleluia…
I like to imagine the Trees Community wailing through a freakout version of this in the church basement at St. John the Divine some time in the early ‘70s. It’s got something of that same blend of ecstasy. spiritual dread, and dada poetry.
Listening to the original version just now, the 5D don’t really mess with the arrangement much; the call-and-response aspect is in place from the start. But their version gains in power simply by increasing the size of the congregation. I was a church musician for many years, and let me tell you, when you get everybody in the pews singing along — which doesn’t happen all that often — you can definitely feel the presence of the Almighty, the Lord and the lightning.
#14: The Lettermen, “Goin’ Out of My Head / Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” – #7 U.S.
Cummings - Now THIS is what 1968 is all about! Twenty seconds in, and I wanted to burn my draft card and take over
the university president’s office. And smash his radio.
Lifton - Why do I have the feeling the B.U.B.L.E.’s algorithm for
Dunphy - Thank heaven for the Lettermen making “Goin’ Out Of My Head” white (and making “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” whiter).
Feerick – A live track, with full orchestra, and a medley at that — a sure signifier that the doo-wop/vocal group strain of American music had officially entered its inevitable Las Vegas-residency phase (which is as close as the world of pop has to a gold-watch retirement ceremony), and could safely be reconsidered and recontextualized as nostalgia. Just one year later, Sha Na Na would be clowning around onstage at Woodstock, and a once-dominant style of chart pop would be forever relegated to novelty-act status.
We bitch and we moan about the accelerated shelf-life cycle of popular culture these days, when VH1 announces a new series of “I Love the 21st Century,” but it’s worth remembering that ‘twere ever thus.
#15: Hugh Masekela, “Grazing in the Grass” – #1 U.S.; nominated for a Grammy Award (Best Contemporary Pop Performance (instrumental)).
Dunphy - The best of the bunch and, once again, the fact that an instrumental could be a hit makes me very happy. Of course, only a couple of years later, we’d have the EXTREMELY dated vocal rendition, saying, “Grazin’ in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it?”
Which is not to say I dislike that other version, but there is something so mellow (in a good way) about this, and there is that whole jazzy feel about it, that always makes me want to hear this one over that one.
Cummings - I hadn’t listened to this in awhile. It’s more repetitive and less happenin’ than I remembered it. And while Hugh blows a mean horn, I think the cowbell guy is the MVP on this track.
Lifton - But Jon, you gotta admit there’s a lot more going on here than on “The In Crowd.” I’ve always dug this one. It’s funky, but also laid-back. I wonder how much of an influence this was on War.
Cummings - Completely agreed. There’s practically NOTHING going on during “The In Crowd.” But if I’m choosing among horn-laden 1968 instrumentals, I’ll take “Soulful Strut” (a/k/a “Am I the Same Girl”) over “Grazing” every time.
Feerick – I’m no scholar of the stuff by any means, but there was some amazing jazz-pop coming out of South Africa in the 1950s and ‘60s, and Hugh Masekela was all over the best of it — the Manhattan Brothers and the Jazz Epistles, especially. And the very idea of African jazz makes me happy. It’s a perfect model of the kind of circularity that pop culture can produce; an American artform with African roots makes the trip back to Africa, gets recontextualized and re-appropriated for local use, then comes back to America to be absorbed and mutated again, and the cycle goes on, over and over.
…until forty years later we get Vampire Weekend.
Hugh Masekela is still awesome, though. Paul Simon took him and Miriam Makeba out on the Graceland tour — an uncharacteristically gracious move on Simon’s part, I thought — and twenty years after “Grazing in the Grass,” the cat was burning.
Lifton - I saw that tour and I now wish that I had a greater understanding of Masekela’s work. At the time it was a diversion from Simon’s music.
#16: The Vogues, “Turn Around, Look at Me” – #7 U.S.; the group’s first Top 10 single since 1965.
Cummings - Is there anybody on our crew here who actually watches “Final Destination” films? Because apparently this played a big role in one of them, which I suppose makes sense — if there’s ever a slasher musical, this would work well. (Is it possible to sing through a Jason mask?) Oh, look — the Bee Gees recorded this song, before they had any idea who they were! ) Anyway, here’s another song that seems more anachronistic than representative when we think about ’68 — but I suppose the Silent Majority had to have SOMETHING to listen to while they sleepwalked (sleptwalk?) through the assassinations and riots and waited to pull the lever for Nixon.
Lifton - I’m upset by how shitty this is because “Five O’Clock World” is a personal favorite, and I didn’t know anything else by The Vogues until now. Thankfully, the last six songs of 1968 are much better.
Dunphy - There is someone, who loves to stalk you, here’s your heart, in my hands! Turn around, look at me!
The majority of this week’s entries sound not like examples from a time period but a parody based on a time period; it’s like the “Walk Hard” soundtrack in that respect, only they’re doing it for real. About the best I can say about this song is that I like the harmonies much more than the Lettermen track.
Feerick – Yeah, between “You’re the One” and this,“Five O’ Clock World” is really starting to look like an anomaly, isn’t it?
That being said: Jesus Christ, those tom-toms are just crushing. It sounds like John Bonham standing on Bill Ward’s shoulders, hitting a taiko drum with a baseball bat. The song is throwback pop, yes, and aimed at the adults out there in radio-land, but it’s interesting that the production aesthetic of rock ‘n’ roll had been so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream by this point that even the old-school knob-jockeys who slathered the strings and winds onto this ditty were miking the drums like it was a Zeppelin record. That climax would knock Phil Collins off his throne.