Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 33
Welcome to the 1970s, AM Gold style! And what better way to kick off a new musical decade than to sharpen our collective wit and come up with all the awful Bread jokes we can?
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#1: Diana Ross, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – #1 U.S., #6 U.K.; Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Female.
Dw. Dunphy - It’s big and dramatic but it has nothing on the Gaye/Terrell version, especially when Ross monologues her way through most of it. I have to admit I like the way the “no wind, no rain” section was adapted here.
David Lifton - Marvin and Tammi sang it to each other, and it was holy. Diana is singing this to herself, and it’s almost three times as long. If it takes more time to masturbate than it does to make love, you’re doing both wrong.
Jon Cummings - This single exemplifies every reason Diana is so unloveable — her laziness as a vocalist (disguised as drama), her self-absorption, her “I love you! Don’t touch me!” persona. In other words, what Lifton said. Nick Ashford is said to love her version, but for me it’s the sound of Diana squatting over Tammi Terrell’s grave and taking a piss.
Lifton - I love it when we agree, Jon.
Michael Parr - Some of you might have peeped this on my Facebook wall, but this version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” just kills.
Jack Feerick – Forget about Miss Ross for a minute – is it just a weird edit, or does the drummer totally turn the beat around at the :57 mark?
Oh, okay, okay – I don’t hate this. What seems to be another disengaged snoozer of a performance busts wide open midway through, and all hell (and heaven) breaks loose, and that explosion of emotion puts the restraint of the earlier verses into some kind of perspective. It makes some kind of sense, is what I’m saying, and in its own way it’s pretty glorious.
#2: Sugarloaf, “Green-Eyed Lady” – #3 U.S.
Dunphy - A sugarloaf is a diabetic bowel movement, right?
Feerick – “Sugarloaf” is a common name given to mountains, all around the world, because of the conical shape and (sometimes) the snow. The most famous is just outside Rio de Janeiro, but there are dozens of peaks called “Sugarloaf” in the US alone. So there’s that. Still a terrible name, though.
Dunphy – This song is one of those, I’ll bet, that dropped off the radar only a couple years after it hit. It certainly sounds like an early-1970s song, but I cannot recall it every getting played on New York’s CBS FM 101.1, the home of the oldies. Was it ever on a Tarantino soundtrack? I know “Little Green Bag” was; if this is the case then the very first time I heard the song would have been as such, as a soundtrack addition meant to evoke a time but not to be significant enough to distract…
…which is precisely how I feel about the song. It evokes but is insignificant. How’s that for glowing?
Lifton - Maybe it wasn’t on CBS FM, but it was definitely on WNEW and K-Rock in the ’80s. I put this one on the same plane as, say, “Ride Captain Ride,” a decent enough song in its day, but one that had no business being on classic rock radio nearly 20 years later. I’m looking at the recent broadcast of WLUP and seeing that those types of songs have been replaced by more recent acts like Stone Temple Pilots, Oasis, and even Incubus. So I can imagine how, in five or ten years, some 16-year old kid who just discovered Zeppelin is going to turn on classic rock radio and feel the same way about Collective Soul the way I felt about Sugarloaf.
David Medsker - I never got this song. It sounded dated to me before I even knew what that meant. Also, Sugarloaf is a terrible, terrible band name.
Cummings - This was part of the background noise of the ’70s – it never really left pop radio for years, long past when I started listening regularly in about ’74. The guitar riff alone was enough to earn it its place on Classic Rock. But as long as we’re talking about Sugarloaf, I’ll just offer a shout-out to one of my first favorite radio songs, “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You.” Now THAT’s a classic!
Feerick – Something about the sound of this makes me think that these guys secretly wanted to be a prog-rock band in the mode of ELP.
Medsker – I had the exact same thought.
Feerick – You know what I mean? Organ solos, harpsichord, the jazzy, scattershot drumming, the drive of the bass pinning everything together, even the half-assed pseudomythological lyrics. I reckon they had the ambition, if not the chops. With a little more musical training and a more indulgent producer, I figure this would have been about seventeen minutes long. “Suite: Green-Eyed Lady (Opus 25), Part One – Child of Nature,” or somesuch.
Lifton - Yeah, I always thought it was longer than 3:45.
Dunphy - As for Sugarloaf and the business of bad band names, I would love to read the transcript of the conversations ultimately leading up to the choosing point. I mean, when the member with the most money (or in the parlance of the times, “bread”) threatened to take his “dough” and “truck on down the road,” did they all just say, “Yeah, Sugarloaf. Sounds groovy,” and that was it?
Dunphy - Well, I’d like to make bread with you too. Bread is good, and if you use whole wheat flour, it is also good for…what, wait? It’s about sex? With David Gates? Eeeewwwwwww.
It is so mellow, pretty, and so unsexy, but not in a gross way as much as an uncomfortable way. Like when your grandparents say something that is supposed to be hot to each other but it sounds like field-plowin’ and cow milkin’.
Medsker - I used to have a theory that Thom Yorke, Fran Healy, and the guy from Aqualung were the bastard sons of David Gates.
Cummings - Funny you should mention those guys, because for the last seven or eight years, every time I hear a Bread/Gates song I actively wish I was listening to Josh Rouse, whose 1972 album out-Breads Bread, but in an awesome (not wimpy) way.
Dunphy - Breaded bread, you say? Well, that’s one way to get your grains I guess.
Dan Wiencek - I wonder if it’s possible to use Bread to diagnose gluten intolerance? (Or sucrose intolerance?)
Chris Holmes - Excessive Bread intake has been shown to lead to dangerous levels of mellowness.
Dunphy - In some extreme circumstances it leads to abnormally increased crap, too.
Lifton - In the name of all things Mellow Gold, can we get Jason to comment on this?
Jason Hare - There’s really no point including a lyric like, “In case you’re wondering what this song is leading to.” You’ve already discussed climbing on rainbows, so there’s a good chance she knows what this song is leading to: you’re a pussy.
Also, what are we making here, anyway? If this song is about having sex (and I’m not so sure that it is — remember, he’s talking about climbing on rainbows, there’s a good chance he doesn’t know actually what sex is) then I just want to take issue with the phrase. Did people use this term in the ’60s and ’70s? Was it, like, “Hey, do you want to go back to my parents’ house and….make it?” I’m trying to imagine someone using this term and also sounding seductive, and the only way I can make it happen is by picturing a ’70s afterschool special about two teenagers engaging in ill-advised pre-marital sex, where the script was clearly written by some dude in his 50s that hadn’t “made it” in a long, long time.
When I was a kid, when someone said they were going to “make,” it meant that they had to go to the bathroom. I’d elaborate more but I feel like anything having to do with using the toilet is really Dunphy’s territory.
Dunphy - Speaking of which, man…corn really does shoot through a person, don’t it?
Okay, enough of that.
Cummings - Jason, having hit puberty in about 1977, I can assure you that “make it” was a very common euphemism for sex at that time. “Did you make it with her?” “Yeah, man, we made it under the bleachers.” “Right. Maybe you made it with your hand…” You had to listen closely to discern between “make out” and “make IT,” to know whether the run had indeed been scored. Whether this song had anything to do with the phrase coming into vogue, I can’t say, but it’s extraordinary how wimpy it is — even within the Bread catalog. I mean, in comparison to this, “Baby I’m-a Want You” is Cock Rock!
Feerick - Oh, “make it” was definitely the common term for a while. Watching Taxi Driver, it’s kind of jarring to hear it used by Jodie Foster’s character. All the horror that poor child was exposed to for the sake of that role, but they drew the line at letting her say “fuck.”
So. Bread. White and squishy, and there’s a lot of dough involved. That sounds about right.
I’m glad to see Jason joining the conversation for this, because these guys are the Platonic ideal of Mellow Gold. Here beginneth soft rock: I mean, there had always been rock bands who played the occasional soft song, but Bread’s innovation was to assume the line-up of a rock band – guitars, bass, and drums – without ever actually, you know, rocking. Diabolical.
Topic for discussion: David Gates and his lyrical death-trip. It’s probably most pronounced in “If,” but there’s an undertow of mortality even here – “Life can be short or long,” he sings, the message being: Love while you can, cos you could snuff it tomorrow.
That, I think, is what I find really off-putting – there’s this sickly, hothouse quality to Bread, like they played so soft because they were languishing at death’s door and they lacked the strength to rock against the dying of the light.
Dunphy – “Life can be short or long…”
This has always been a common ploy in movies where the horny dude is trying to bed the virgin. Y’know, the world is going to hell on a daily basis. You could wake up dead tomorrow and never experienced the awkward anticlimactic two and three-quarter minutes of me plowing you in the back of my Datsun.
#4: Elton John, “Your Song” – #8 U.S., #7 U.K.
Dunphy - Elton’s first substantial U.S. hit marked something of a seismic shift. He was the sensitive piano pop star, but he was also dangerous and a little twisted. He was as comfortable sitting in with an orchestra as he was with guitarist Mick Ronson, and while “Your Song” is soft and tender, it undercuts the drippy woo with Bernie Taupin’s lyrical awareness: the bit about the eyes “green or blue,” as well as the unsure delivery of, “Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean…” which sounds more realistic than David Gates singing about making it with plowing cows.
Lifton - “Bernie, I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship…”
Dunphy - By this time in 1970, I would have been a year old, maybe less. And although the phrase “sounds brand new” is tossed out in every Time-Life ad “Your Song” has virtually nothing to date it. Much as I love later Elton stuff, especially Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the synths of “Funeral For A Friend” lock it into the ’70s. “Your Song” could come out today from some indie popster and not sound out of date.
Medsker - It will bury us all. Like Dunphy said, this song is as timeless as they get. When modern-day songwriters set out to write the next great ballad, this is what they should be striving for.
Cummings - I’m actually surprised you guys are giving this song so much love. I mean, I guess if I could hear it with “fresh ears,” as they say, I would have to admit it’s a great song. But I can’t hear it with fresh ears, because I’ve been sick to death of it since 1976! After a couple dozen spins through Elton John’s Greatest Hits, I began setting the tonearm down at track two on Side One. (It also became second nature to pounce on the “reject” switch before the needle hit the first bars of “Crocodile Rock,” at the end of Side Two.) And after sitting through a few thousand airings on pop radio, I began experimenting to see if I could spin the dial on the old man’s Marantz receiver just hard enough to send the tuner straight to the other pop station. Unless forced to listen to it, via a radio I couldn’t control or my wife’s sentimentality, I don’t think I’ve chosen to listen to “Your Song” once since then.
Feerick - Hey, correct me if I’m wrong – but when Reg Dwight and Bernie Taupin first put their little project, wasn’t “Elton John” the name of the band, rather than the name of the guy? Like Jethro Tull, or the Pink Floyd?
In any case, I must agree with (almost) everybody else – “Your Song” is pretty much unassailable, but I would argue that its genius is mostly down to Bernie’s lyric, which winds through layers of meaning. Ostensibly it’s a love song, but it’s really a song about the act of songwriting, about trying – and failing – to write a suitable love song. He runs down the circumstances of the composition, the metaphors tried and abandoned, the false starts (“…but then again, no”), finally the admission that his talent is insufficient to the task at hand: “Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean…” And the sentiments of love he does manage to express are pretty banal – “quite simple,” even – and offered with an apologetic shrug.
But (and here’s the genius bit) why is it so hard to write a decent love song, anyway? Because the feelings are too big and significant to be pinned down in words and notes. So “Your Song” is a love song after all, and perhaps the most honest love song ever written – a love song that comments on the impossibility of writing and adequate love song, a love song that admits how love turns even a jaded poet into a stammering teenager.
With a lyric like that, all Reg has to do is not fuck it up.
Cummings - I would point out that, just a minute ago, Jason castigated David Gates for writing a line that “breaks the fourth wall,” so to speak (“In case you’re wondering what this song is leading to…”). That’s all this song does, is break the fourth wall. Upon endless, ubiquitous listens, I find the trope just as irritating when it emerges from Taupin’s pen as from Gates’.
#5: Melanie, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” – #6 U.S.
Lifton – I guess this wins points for being earnest and timely, but vibrato on a sub-Janis vocal doesn’t work very well, even if you’ve got the Edwin Hawkins Singers behind you.
But in this week’s installment of Cover Version That Makes You Go “Why?,” we have Meredith Brooks and Queen Latifah. It’s actually somewhat competent. At least until Brooks breaks out the wah-wah pedal.
Cummings - I’ve always found it interesting that the two most resonant artifacts of post-Woodstock instant nostalgia were written by women with really odd voices. I have a hard time imagining that “Lay Down” would have gotten on the radio were it not for the boomers’ obsessive need to consecrate their experience at Yasgur’s Farm; in that sense, the song is practically the Gettysburg Address of the counterculture. The chorus fulfills that purpose exquisitely, thanks to Hawkins’ choir — which is a good thing, because Melanie’s verses surely could not have done the trick by themselves due to their sheer quirkiness. (Similarly, Joni’s “Woodstock” needed the emotional heft provided by CSN’s climactic harmonies on “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden!”)
Dunphy - What a bizarre jump from “Lay Down” to “I’ve got a pair of brand new roller skates, you got a brand new key” though.
Medsker - For the longest time I didn’t know “Lay Down” was ever a major hit. The first time I heard it was when this singer/songwriter named Ke covered it in the mid-’90s. I’m betting he’s wishing he picked a different name in the age of the internet.
Parr - I kid you not, I have that Ke record.
Medsker - I have it, too. His vocals take some getting used to, but I like his tunes.
Feerick – The shock of the modern! Funnily enough, I can imagine this fitting in on today’s rock radio alongside, say, Beth Orton. That same steely British soul is at play here.
There’s been some chatter lately about the resurgence of the gospel sound in pop, particularly with reference to Florence and the Machine. Now, as with anything, the gospel influence can be a dead end – and there was a shedload of crummy gospel-pop in the 1970s, God knows – but when it’s centered on a singer who knows how to do something with, the result is just explosive. There’s a great quote from the electronic composer Jaron Lanier: “Music is sex with God.” That’s what this sounds like – dirty and holy all at once. Me likey.