Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 37
The first installment of AM Gold: 1971 features a fairly diverse range of pop — from the manly swagger of Tom Jones, to the super-cheery pop of Dawn, and finally to the potent realism of Carly Simon. Oh, and a song about drugs. Can’t forget the drugs. This was the ’70s after all.
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#1: Tom Jones, “She’s a Lady” – #2 U.S., #13 U.K.; written by Paul Anka, and featuring lead guitar by Jimmy Page.
Dw. Dunphy - True and terrifying memories of my childhood. My father used to work with this fellow, and occasionally on Sundays we would take a trip to spend the day with his family. Everyone was nice enough, but details from these trips would stick more than others – early ’70s decor including beanbag chairs, woodgrain wainscoting beneath brown and orange paint, Aqua Net hairstyles piled so high the beehives scraped the ceiling, and chain-smoking around the kids.
And Tom Jones. The wife of this particular fellow loved her some Tom Jones; loved him something fierce. She’d put her fifth Lucky out with her tongue for some Tom Jones. Her husband didn’t understand. He was more of a southern kinda guy; way out of his depth here in central New Jersey where relieving one’s self in the woods is generally frowned upon. He didn’t know what she saw in that “stinking limey.” Well, she saw what she also saw in Englebert Humperdinck, I imagine.
What do I think about “She’s A Lady”? I think it is a song that has small charms, but reeks of Vegas showrooms and it’s connected kitch, of grannie-panties flung onto the footlights, of Aqua Net and Lucky Strikes, and Radio Shack dictation cassette players where the sound warbled and warped and did nobody any favors.
Where was I? Oh, now I know….I’m traumatized.
Chris Holmes - I’ve written before about how hokey I find Tom Jones, but I have to admit I dig this song. It strikes the right balance of smarmy and aggressive. The arrangement is propulsive enough that Tom doesn’t have much time to perform his standard vocal equivalent of chewing scenery.
David Medsker - I’m on the opposite side of the fence from Chris on this one. I dig me some Tom Jones, but I find this song kind of hokey. “She’s a Lady”? Well, yes, that much was understood when you said ‘she.’
Jack Feerick - Whenever I hear this or another song like it, describing some (inevitably dated) model of femininity, I listen half-expecting a punchline that never comes. This one’s pretty bad. (Certain Billy Joel songs that haven’t aged well, either.) But I don’t hate it. I can just about forgive this because the band is so hot and Tom is giving it so much gusto. He really means it, the big dope.
I think maybe Jimmy Page hates it, though; the way he keeps hammering that one note, it sounds like he’s trying to kill the song in its tracks.
Jon Cummings - I find it astounding that “She’s a Lady” can dredge up such horrifying memories in someone as generally well-adjusted (cough cough) as Dw. What I want to know is, what color was the shag carpet, Dw? Can you feeeeeeeeeeel it between your fingers?
“She’s a Lady” is one of the few Tom Jones songs I can stand … or understand, for that matter. It fits his personality to a T, and actually kinda rocks in its one-foot-in-male-chauvinism, one-foot-in-feminism way. However, the initial rhyme of “dinner” and “winner” was destroyed for me a number of years ago during a visit to Disneyland, where the side-stage act in Tomorrowland was Buzz Lightyear with a trio of backup Space Rangerettes. The key line of the introductory song about Buzz went, “Buzz Lightyear is a winner, and he’s never late for dinner” — except that, for some reason, the Rangerettes pronouced the i’s slightly like e’s, so it sounded like “Buzz Lightyear is a wiener, and he’s never late for deener.” My kids sang that for months, and of course I applied it to “She’s a Lady.” Somehow the phrase “she’s a wiener” undercuts Tom’s message just a bit.
David Lifton – Looking at everyone’s responses, I think it’s interesting that those of us who like Jones for his over-the-top cheesy machismo hate this song, while those who generally hate Tom Jones can stomach this song for its over-the-top cheesy machismo. I’m in the former camp. At least “What’s New, Pussycat?” was written for a sex farce. This is just him sing “Lay – DAY!” over and over again, which puts it closer to Lenny Kravitz’s boring-ass “Lady” than to the Isley Brothers’, “Who’s That Lady?”
It’s not even worth making a joke about Giles’ mom.
#2: Dawn, “Knock Three Times” – #1 U.S. and U.K.
Dunphy - Knock three times on Candida if you want me…how uncivilized.
Like its predecessor, you can’t really get too mad at “Knock Three Times.” It is a thorough piece of fluff that is inoffensive-in-extremis and doesn’t hang around long enough to make you really nauseous. There may be many reasons why Tony Orlando didn’t have a third act career (if you consider that variety show as his second act) but he’s a competent singer. He’s a likable personality. If that gets some of our modern popstars by on those alone, then we should allow Orlando a pass.
Holmes - I don’t have it in me to shit on this song. It’s just too much fun to sing along with that chorus.
Feerick – Okay, the time has come for me to reckon with Tony Orlando. I just sort of clocked out “Candida” with a blinding wave of hate; I’m going to give “Knock Three Times” an honest listen and try to think of at least one nice thing to say.
Well, at least it’s over in less than three minutes.
Okay, okay. And Tony Orlando was pretty funny in his guest spots on Chico and the Man, where he played out some pretty funny riffs on his chance resemblance to Freddy Prinze. And at least, unlike the real Freddy Prinze, he never gave Pam Grier VD. Best I can do.
Cummings - This is exactly the kind of high-concept pop that gave the ’70s such a good/bad name, and that TO&D would perfect a couple years later with “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.” It’s also a key moment in the long tradition of what-else-is-going-on-in-my-
Holmes - How can you forget the feel-good pop hit of 1987, Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”?
Wiencek - Concrete Blonde’s “Happy Birthday” did a nice job with that theme as well.
Lifton - I’m not a fan of this but I still can’t stop giggling at the line “twice on the pipe” being used in a song about a booty call. But, like “She’s A Lady” it’s still not worthy of a joke about Giles’ mom.
#3: Tommy James, “Draggin’ the Line” – #4 U.S.
Holmes - It’s been long-rumored that this song was about cocaine. If that’s true, how odd is it that two of the most famous pop/rock songs about coke (this and Clapton’s) are so frigging laid back? When I think of songs about coke that more accurately reflect the experience, I think of “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” Not that I’d know about such things of course.
Dunphy - So for Tommy James, we have “Crystal Blue Persuasion” which was purportedly about speed, Draggin’ The Line” which is likely about coke-snorting, “Crimson and Clover” which has to have some drug connotation I’m not getting, but moreover sounds like they (the Shondells) were high off their asses when they did it. The Ad Council really missed a golden opportunity, didn’t they?
This is Tommy James.
This is Tommy James on drugs.
“Oh, Jesus no!!” That would probably have steered a whole generation away from Studio 54 right there.
Dan Wiencek - Didn’t he tell some story about “Crystal Blue Persuasion” coming from three words he happened to notice together while perusing the Bible one day?
Dunphy - It’s entirely possible. It’s also entirely possible he read those words off a Bazooka Joe comic strip.
Feerick – I like this, but then I’m a sucker for that glam-rock stomp. This sounds just enough like Gary Glittrer for me to dig it.
Like “Crimson and Clover,” it’s got a distinctive sound — but unlike “Crimson and Clover,” the studio trickery isn’t the whole story. The low vocal hook and the stereo-separated horns perk things up, but it’s the bassline that truly makes it work.
Cummings - I suppose the coke connotations are obvious, but I never cared. I’ve always figured this was the hippest song ever about farming, or maybe living on a hippie commune. I’ve loved this song since I was a little kid — the bassline and the low vocal line were like catnip when I was 5 or 6 — so I’ll just stick to that. Add in the fact that R.E.M. covered it, and what other seal of approval do you need?
Lifton - I’m pretty sure R.E.M.’s cover (for one of the Austin Powers movies) is the only reason why I know this song. I wasn’t intrigued by it enough to seek out the original. By the way, “Draggin’ The Line” is what Giles’ mom’s calls…ah, never mind.
#4: Jonathan Edwards, “Sunshine” – #4 U.S.; the song was only included on Edwards’ first album after another song called “Please Find Me” was accidentally erased by the engineer.
Dunphy - It’s not as bad as Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime”… I HATE THAT SONG, I HATE THAT SONG, I HATE THAT SONG, I HATE THAT SONG!
But this song by Edwards rubs me the way in which it should not be rubbing me because it is not in a positive motion. In other words, there is a slight smugness to it that is off-putting. “He can’t even run his own life, I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine,” he sings. I reply, yes but you’re good at running your mouth, aren’t you, Mr. Tough Guy Pop Singer? This probably appealed to the last vestiges of the late ’60s protesters that still had some fire in them, but the times were changing. The outsized, outward singer/songwriters were internalizing, finding the flowers in their hair had wilted, their knuckles hurt when they tried to flash the peace sign, and they weren’t nearly the people they thought they were.
They had to go find themselves.
I didn’t have to hear about it though. Besides, I was too young to know anything about all that. For me, much later, this was just a brief ditty that came and went on the radio that acted as interstitial material for things of more merit. It was incredibly short, and that was its saving grace, unlike the neverending “In The Summertime.”
I HATE THAT SONG, I HATE THAT SONG, I HATE THAT SONG, I HATE THAT SONG!
Feerick - Well, it’s no “Everybody’s Talkin’,” that’s for sure. It’s no James Taylor, either, but boy does it want to be.
Cummings - Interesting Jack immediately leaps to “Everybody’s Talkin’,” because I do too, and always have. I love this song — used to sing it in the shower all the time when I was a teenager, often pulling off a segue into “Sundown” just for kicks. I was helped along in this endeavor by my 10th-grade English teacher’s obsession with Jonathan Edwards — the OTHER one, the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” one. She spent several days talking us through the 18th-century fire and brimstone, but all the while I was at my desk thinking, “He can’t even run his own life, I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine!” (I responded much more positively to Thoreau, a few weeks later, but was bummed that “Walden” didn’t come with a ready-made soundtrack. Don Henley had not yet become a preservationist at that point…)
Lifton - I never really gave much thought to the lyrics or the quality of the delivery as Dunphy, but I love the acoustic guitar playing, which drives the song so well that the drums get in the way of the rhythm.
#5: Carly Simon, “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” – #10 U.S.; the first of her many Top 40 singles to come in the ’70s.
Holmes - My appreciation for Carly Simon begins and ends with “Nobody Does It Better.”
Wiencek - While that falsetto is a little unnerving, this is a wonderful instance of what might be called the “beware of growing up and turning into everything you hate (i.e., your parents)” genre of song. The song’s blunt, even heavy-handed view of marriage and settling down — what I’m guessing Chris is turned off by, if not by Carly’s reedy pipes — is just what I like about it. Say what you will about this song, it’s not escapist comfort food for the ears; it means business, and business is downright depressing.
Dunphy - I’m with Dan as far as “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” is concerned, even if that is one unnecessarily long song title. It acts as a kind of remedy to “I Am Woman”; those songs that were made for bumper stickers and rally chants but as music were as subtle as a cannonball to the testicles. Simon’s song is really a feminist-leaning track, but done as cautionary tale, and it sounds extremely pretty.
Feerick – My parents stayed married until my father’s death, and mostly got along, while my wife’s parents were divorced and remarried a couple of times apiece; sometimes when we talk about love — when we talk about our marriage — it seems like we’re talking about two different things. And sometimes it scares the ever-living piss out of me. This song gives me that same unease.
Marriage — in its promises, in its realities — is a scary thing, life-altering; and a degree of ambivalence toward the institution is universal, even among people who are (mostly) happily married. Earlier entries in this series, like “Wedding Bell Blues” or “The Worst That Could Happen,” have addressed that ambivalence, but from a trite, second-hand perspective that ultimately feels false. “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” succeeds not just by looking at it from a feminist viewpoint, but by building its emotional affect out of concrete detail. It’s a genius piece of songwriting, on a par with Stephen Sondheim, and I find it point-blank devastating.
Cummings - Jack said what I feel about this song quite eloquently. I’m not a Carly fan, generally speaking — her grating voice on songs like “You Belong to Me” and “Jesse” makes me want to drive my car off a cliff when they come on the radio — but “That’s the Way” is astonishing for its art-song
beauty, its lyrical detail, and its utter lack of enthusiasm for a subject that serves as the foundation for much of pop music. She makes marriage sound like a lamb being led to the slaughter. Its impact on the feminist movement couldn’t have been more profound. And this was her first single! Jack compares it to Sondheim; I’ll compare it with “Hearts and Bones”-era Paul Simon, which I intend as a high compliment. All of that said, beyond this and “You’re So Vain” and “Nobody Does It Better” — the last of which works far better as Bond nostalgia than it does as music — I have no use for the rest of Carly’s music.
Medsker - I had no idea how truly pessimistic this song was until I looked up the lyrics. The chorus ends on such a cheery major chord, but the giveaway is that descending sequence in the verse. It doesn’t just drop – it plummets, which fits the lyric perfectly.
And to give that lyric credit, it’s quite ahead of its time in terms of commenting on the hidden truth suburbia. At the same time, she seems content to wreck her life, not to mention the lives of her prospective kids, in an ill-advised starter marriage. Hard to get emotionally involved in any of these people.
That should probably say “dark side of suburbia,” rather than “hidden truth.”
Dunphy - I think this is the first time me and Jon are exactly on the same page, at least as far as Carly Simon is concerned. I might have thrown in “Anticipation,” if it wasn’t covered in ketchup by now.
Wiencek - Hey, “hidden truth” works for me.
I think the great tragedy of the song is not that all the marriages this narrator sees are grotesque shams — it’s that in the end, she feels helpless to escape the same fate. That final “We’ll marry,” with a chorus of cascading voices echoing like the doubts in the singer’s head, is the emotional gut shot that elevates the song to greatness.
And as long as we’re ragging on the rest of Simon’s oeuvre, I’ll just say that occasionally “Coming Around Again” will get lodged in my head and I’ll spend the next hour or so fighting off the urge to kill myself.
Feerick - I don’t know — I don’t think the picture that the song paints is overly pessimistic, or its conclusions that it draws are so tragic. And I think that’s part of its genius, that it doesn’t tip its hand too far, doesn’t quite boil over into grotesquerie.
There’s a difference between feeling helpless in the face of a relentless fate, and being resigned to the reality of your situation. Yes, a marriage — even the best, happiest marriage — necessarily involves compromise and limitation, and you will undergo some loss of personal autonomy. Yes, even in the closest, most loving families, your kids will hate you — sometimes, for a while at least. And even in the smoothest, most blissfully happy lives, there will be moments when you feel crushed by regret, when you hate yourself and what you have become. But you accept that, you go into it with your eyes wide open, and you muddle through; for me, the key lines are, “They drink, they laugh / close the wound, heal the scar.” Note that it’s not hide the scar: heal the scar. You muddle through, you do your best, you find a way to make it work.
In the end, I reckon the song, while ambivalent, is affirmative: Yes, we will do this, knowing full well what might happen, what probably will happen, because love — its laughter. its healing power — is worth it. We’ll do it anyway. And that’s something close to heroic, I think.
Wiencek - I think the line “I’ll never learn to be just me first/by myself” is what keeps me from signing on to that interpretation. This isn’t about exchanging one kind of happiness (the freedom to do what you want and discover yourself, with no ties to others) for another (the love and comforts of a family). This is about saying goodbye to a life of promise and potential and jumping into the abyss, solely because everyone else you know has already done it.
A followup song about this character would be most interesting.
Cummings - I’m afraid that “Coming Around Again” IS the follow-up. God, I hate that song! “Pay the grocer, fix the toaster…” My wife and I used to make up additional ridiculous lines about domesticity — “Get the vacuum, kill the raccoon” … “Squeeze the melon, my kid’s a felon” … that sort of thing.
Lifton - Yeah, this one’s pretty amazing for the reasons you’ve all described, even if I think Carly Simon is the epitome of the overrated, smug 70-singer-songwriter.