Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 39
If you love sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, then this is the AM Gold installment for you! OK, maybe not the rock ‘n’ roll part so much. But sex and drugs, yeah, we got that covered.
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#11: Melanie, “Brand New Key” – #1 U.S., #4 U.K.
Dan Wiencek - One of the most maddening conversations I ever had in my life was with someone who insisted there were no sexual overtones to this lyric.
Dw. Dunphy - What is this? “I got a pair of brand new roller skates, you gotta come pork me”?
Seriously, isn’t that what’s really being said here?
Jack Feerick - How many times has AM Gold been re-released and tweaked? I’ve been trying to do my write-ups a few weeks ahead of demand, and the version I’ve been working from has no Melanie in this volume, and no “Mr. Bojangles,” either. Which means I wasted a perfectly good eight minutes of my life listening to “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and something called “Sweet City Woman,” and another half-hour trying to come up with something amusing to say, all for no good reason.
Anyway. This. Dripping with innuendo, and yet not actually sexy. Not in the least. Even if you think Melanie is cute, even if you find her coy wordplay amusing, the fact remains that when she goes swooping up to her high register, she sounds unnervingly like Tiny Tim, and any flicker of sexiness within a 50-yard radius is extinguished, possibly forever.
Holmes - Yes, but then you see this song used with Heather Graham in Boogie Nights, and the sexuality is fully restored.
Jon Cummings - My thoughts about this song have always been a jumble — partly because I heard OF it (on a list of #1 hits) long before I actually heard it, and for years I figured it must be about somebody whose voice had changed and who therefore had to sing in a … brand new key. (When it’s time to change, you’ve got to rearrange!) Apart from that, for anyone under the age of, say, 35 … which I am not, unfortunately … isn’t the first question about this song, “What the heck’s a skate key”? And apart from THAT, whenever I hear this song I’m transfixed by the high-pitched piano tinkling away underneath the verses, and I can’t help but think of Billy Preston’s work on the Beatles’ “One After 909,” from the year before “Brand New Key” was recorded. As for the song itself, it’s cute. Inconsequential. It’s easy to imagine Three Dog Night covering it and having a big hit, if Melanie’s own version hadn’t done so well. And it’s bizarre to think that the biggest songs on the radio at the end of 1971 were the monumentally funky “Shaft” and “Family Affair,” the eight-minute “American Pie” … and “Brand New Key.” And despite the differences in their themes and seriousness (not to mention length), it’s arguable which of the latter two songs deployed metaphor with more of a sledgehammer.
David Lifton - While watching football this season, I used to get pissed off at this Prius ad that was repeatedly shown. It’s not even that the commercial was bad – it was actually quite colorful. What bothered me was the use of Fabienne Delsol’s “Come Along,” which couldn’t be more ill-suited to be used during an NFL game. And it sounds exactly like “Brand New Key.” And now I am angry.
#12: Honey Cone, “Want Ads” – #1 U.S.; their only chart-topper and the first of four consecutive Top 40 singles.
Feerick – Perfectly adorable. You can see why it was a hit, but you can also see why, forty years on, if you think of the Honey Cone at all it is as a one-hit wonder. There’s an element of novelty song in the subject matter, and it’s so memetically sticky, such that even though they followed up with three killer Top 40 singles in a row people still think of Honey Cone as “that ‘Want Ads” group.”
Worse still, within a few years the premise of the song would essentially come true, with the mid-70s rise of alternative weekly newspapers and personal ads. As the nation learned the shorthand of phrases like SWM and BBW, the joke of “Want Ads” was made obsolete.
Cummings - Cute. Inconsequential. Yet it anticipates by some number of years the method of finding love that would arguably become emblematic of our post-sexual revolution, media-centered, ever-more-isolated existence. So you gotta give it that. Has anybody noticed how the arrangement is a blatant ripoff of “I Want You Back”?
Lifton - I only discovered this song a few years ago, when I did one of those “What was #1 on your birthday” generators and found this was it for when I turned two. Maybe Jack’s point about it being outdated (pun acknowledged but not intended) due to the subject matter is why it doesn’t get played too much, but I think it still sounds great, especially when paired with “Mr. Big Stuff.”
#13: Three Dog Night, “An Old-Fashioned Love Song” – #4 U.S.; the group’s seventh consecutive Top 10.
Feerick - I knew even before I looked it up that this was a Paul Williams song. Man, that guy; I can’t abide his stuff unless it’s being sung by Muppets. And Chuck Negron may be kind of fuzzy, but absent Jim Henson’s hand up his ass, I ain’t interested.
Cummings - I’m generally not a big fan of songs about songs. However, this is cute. Inconsequential. I feel a theme developing in my comments this week. Am I trying to say something about post-1960s pop, without actually saying it?
Lifton - Moving right along…
#14: Brewer & Shipley, “One Toke Over The Line” – #10 U.S.; reportedly VP Spiro Agnew had the FCC ban the song from radio for its subversiveness.
Dunphy - So Agnew wanted this song off the airwaves because it was about smokin’ up, but Melanie’s song wasn’t subversive. Ho-kay.
Feerick – I don’t know what this song is all about and frankly I can’t bring myself to care.
It’s a big world, with enough people in it that, simply as a matter of odds, this has to be somebody’s favorite song. Not anybody I’d ever want to meet, though.
Dunphy - Brewer and Shipley, Zager and Evans, Buckner & Garcia — they’re all just Loggins and Messina with fetishes.
Cummings - C’mon, Jack, you’ve gotta give some respect to anything that could put such a bee in Spiro Agnew’s bonnet. And you’ve gotta give it to Brewer & Shipley … at least they’re waiting in the railway station, rather than driving while impaired. So hopefully they won’t wind up in the pokey with Mr. Bojangles, and maybe someday they’ll get to serve as opening act for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I don’t think Agnew ever accomplished more than calling the song “subversive” – at right about the same time as it was being featured on The Lawrence Welk Show, sung by “Gail and Dale,” and being introduced by Mr. Welk himself as a “modern spiritual.” My guess is that Agnew’s problem wasn’t simply the use of the word “toke” — which, by the way, is not included in the dictionary I keep at my desk, which dates from 1968(!) — but the juxtaposition of that word with the word “Jesus.” As though anyone sitting through the Nixon administration could have kept their faith in Jesus if they weren’t stoned on something…
Lifton - So this song came out just as the Eagles were forming. Does this mean we can blame everything on Brewer & Shipley?
#15: Joan Baez, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – #3 U.S., #6 U.K.; by far her biggest chart success.
Dunphy - I think a large body of the audience heard Baez’s version before they heard The Band, and in some ways I like Baez’s version because it sounds so big. That is an odd statement regarding an artist most known for folk guitar, quavering voice and a lot of songs about people who are going to die, or are dead, or are dying to be dead. That said, her singing this song hardly makes a lick of sense, as I doubt Virgil Kane would have survived very long singing like that.
Feerick - Friend of mine describes Joan Baez’s voice as “a foghorn filled with honey,” which is both poetic and accurate, but a foghorn is a foghorn for a’that. The song’s affect (such as it is) depends on an air of wounded dignity; Joan can do dignity, but she’s a diva through and through — she will never sound convincingly broken, and so the song sounds perversely triumphant.
This is probably my least favorite Band song to begin with, too — but then, I have a very low tolerance for Confederate nostalgia.
Cummings – There’s so much to say about this song, and this single. The song itself is a brilliant piece of work — substantial in a way that rock music prided itself upon during its time, but practically none seeks to attain now. The idea of a songwriter like Robertson getting an idea for a song, then actually going to the library to research the importance of railroad supply lines to the end stages of the Confederate struggle, engenders a sense of nostalgia for serious songwriting. And its popularity — the Band’s second album was a top-10 hit in ’69, and the original version of this song was an FM staple – can’t help but buttress the annoying, boomer-centric view that ’60s music fans, like the artists themselves, considered what they were doing as somehow more important than did folks who came before or since.
That said, Baez’s single saps the song of much of what made it great — not just Levon Helm’s achingly authentic vocal and the Band’s Appalachia-tinged arrangement, but also many of those little details that Robertson had researched. (For example, in her hands Virgil is just “a working man,” not someone who “works the land”; the song’s specific reference to Union General Stoneman is removed; and the addition of the word “the” in front of “Robert E. Lee” changes the context from Virgil seeing the defeated general himself to Virgil seeing the Mississippi steamboat that took Lee’s name.) Beyond all that, it’s interesting from our latter-day perspective to hear how Baez watered down and popularized a song that had originated with such an idiosyncratic voice attached to it. Of course, it was nothing new in 1971 — a generation of listeners had first heard some of Bob Dylan’s earliest songs in Baez’s voice during the early ’60s, and many of those same folks probably had migrated to Adult Contemporary stations by ’71 and made “Dixie” a huge hit there. But one of the key things Dylan had accomplished in between (along with the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the first singer-songwriters, and other usual suspects) was to impose upon rock music a primacy for singers performing their own songs.
That was a break from pop’s songwriter-producer-singer heirarchy as well as Baez’s beloved folk tradition. Within that context, Baez had applied her pure and beautiful — but not particularly expressive — voice to great acclaim and terrific (album) sales as she brilliantly resurrected centuries of Childe and other European and Appalachian folk ballads during the early ’60s. Dylan’s early folk songs likewise suited her crystalline voice and strident tone just fine, but as his songwriting (and mainstream rock’s in general) evolved into more personal territory,her continued efforts to interpret contemporary songs became less successful artistically even as her profile as an activist expanded. (It was that profile, not any recently successful music, that got her onstage at Woodstock.) All of which made her commercial success with “Dixie” something of an anachronism, even in ’71. It certainly proved that Baez was still a credible commodity – but when she followed it with her last big commercial success, the Diamonds and Rust album in ’75, a huge part of the work’s appeal was that she (finally) upped the artistic ante and became a songwriter herself.
Lifton - I agree with everything Jon says, except that Levon Helm does sing “the Robert E. Lee.” It’s little slurred on the original (it sounds more like “gooooo-sa-Robert”, but the alternate mix on the 2000 reissue makes it more obvious. And it’s clear on the live versions on both Rock Of Ages and The Last Waltz.
I just checked Barney Hoskyns’ book about The Band and he says that it’s a reference to the general, not the boat.
Dunphy - So it is”There goes-a Robert E. Lee”? Do you think they’d cotton to them there Eye-talians right about then? No suh, I do not!
Lifton - I have no idea, but Baez’s version is playing in the pizza parlor where I’m having lunch right now, less than two hours after talking about it.
Chris Holmes - My appreciation for Joan Baez begins and ends with “Diamonds and Rust,” and that’s only because Judas Priest (yes, that Judas Priest) covered it on their third album.
Lifton - I could barely take her seriously after seeing Don’t Look Back.
Cummings - Yeah, she comes off about as well in that as Warren Beatty comes off in Truth or Dare. She does deserve a lot of credit for her music of the early and mid-’60s, and her work as an activist … but Dylan had moved past her by the time of that UK tour. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder as I was watching it whether it was selectively edited to portray her as such a hanger-on.
#16: Ocean, “Put Your Hand in the Hand” – #2 U.S.; their only charting single in America.
Dunphy - They made us sing this a lot in Parochial School. Scarred…for…life.
Feerick – More Jesus-pop! Hallelujah!
Except, not. There’s deep cognitive dissonance here. Look at the lyric — it’s an acknowledgment of that we are sinners all, sung from a place of shame, guilt, and supplication. So why doesn’t it sound like a plea? Why should it sound so self-assured and superior? If you’re going to sing sacred music, of all genres, then you need to pay attention to the words.
Cummings - I’m interested in Jack’s take on this song, particularly considering that we just covered “One Toke Over the Line” above and recently discussed the pop-spirituality in songs like “Get Together” and “Spirit in the Sky.” Jack’s argument is that Ocean’s vocalist didn’t properly put across the song’s message of sin and looking to the gospels for redemption — to which I’d respond, There’s a reason why this, like all the songs I just mentioned, became a huge pop hit … and reverence ain’t that reason. I’d argue that later ’70s hits like “Day By Day,” from Godspell, and even Sister Janet Mead’s sing-songy “The Lord’s Prayer” also happily jettisoned nearer-my-God-to-thee-ness in favor of inspiring the ringing of cash registers. I myself never cared much about the man from Galilee, but from the age of 6 I was aware that “Put Your Hand in the Hand” is a happenin’ tune, at least as Ocean performed it. (Anne Murray’s original had been considerably stodgier — the song was written by the same guy who wrote “Snowbird” — and, to double down on a topic I discussed above, Joan Baez did a version that drains practically all the life Ocean put into it.)
Dunphy - I think my primary problem with “Put Your Hand In The Hand,” aside from my previously admitted Catholic connotations, is that this is a commercial jingle (or sounds like one, at least). Maybe they’re selling God, maybe not, but it sounds like they’re selling something. It’s that whole Up With People variant of smile-singing that just makes me itch. That and this new shampoo that has been endorsed by Ocean…flaky, very flaky.
Lifton - Jesus Christ…