Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 40
Digging for Gold is turning forty! That’s forty great installments, which is ten more than thirty! But enough math, you’ve come here for more trenchant musical analysis and good-natured barbs haven’t you? Let’s get to it on this, the final part of our look at AM Gold: 1971.
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#17: The Raiders, “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)” – #1 U.S.
Jack Feerick – Friends, when Iron Fucking Maiden writes a better socially-conscious song about your chosen issue than you do… I mean, points for good politics and all, but the phrase “With friends like these…” comes to mind.
That said, “Indian Rez” does manage to raise a little spooky tingle in its closing moments — a ghost dance for that traditional instrument of the Plains peoples, the overdriven Hammond B3.
Jon Cummings – Five years ago I listed this song at #7 among the Worst #1 Singles of the ’70s but since then I’ve heard it more often than I ever had before (damn you, satellite radio!) and I may have started to rethink. There’s something about this song’s history that is such a train wreck, it’s intriguing — written by a Nashville guy (John D. Loudermilk) as “The Pale Faced Indian,” and first recorded by Marvin Rainwater (a quarter-Cherokee) in 1959 with all sorts of Native American whooping and chanting (and a mispronunciation of “tommyhawk”) that sound, if anything, even more offensive to contemporary ears than the Raiders’ hit version. And yet … this single fits perfectly into that glorious/horrifying ’70s tradition with “Seasons in the Sun” and “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” and a hundred other songs I love so much that it’s hard to knock “Indian Reservation” for nestling amongst them.
Dw. Dunphy – My sister LOVED this song when she was a kid. I was two years younger than her and now I can see why. If you take away the sometimes patronizing, pitying awfulness of some of the lyrics, it sounds pretty good. Early ’70s kids aren’t going to get any of the references or know just how politically incorrect it would be to do the whole “Hi-a-wa-tha!” chant/rain dance thing, and so this tune just goes by in its own way. You can hear that build up at the end though that promises something approaching a big Santana-style jam, but never actually comes to fruition.
As for my own thoughts about the subject, there are plenty of songs that I love from my youth that I will readily admit aren’t good songs. As any rock scholar and they’ll spit in my eye or puke on my shoes for admission of any affection for certain tracks that always come back to me. And yet we experience things dependent on our level of intellect and sophistication of the times, not of future understanding. I woke up with ABBA’s “S.O.S.” in my head a few days ago. I haven’t heard it in years but there is was, bouncing out of my half-waking mind. It’s a jolly good song, but more than likely to get me negative attention for admitting I like it, even on an ironic level (no irony here, though). I think everyone has a tune or two that they don’t talk about like that. It’s not a guilty pleasure at all, but explaining why the attraction is there relies on so much subtext, nobody has that much time.
David Lifton – I wish there was some way I could blame Al Davis for this song, but alas, different Raiders.
#18: The Grass Roots, “Temptation Eyes” – #15 U.S.
Feerick – There’s something so primal about the minor descending chord progression, whether it’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” or “Twenty-Five or Six to Four,” or, well, this. It’s pretty thin gruel, but at least it keeps the energy level high.
Cummings – Creeeeeeed! (Actually, Creed Bratton had left the Grass Roots by this time.) Still, I loves me some Grass Roots, and this is my favorite of their hits. Such a great pop composition. How was this band not (quite) as successful as the Guess Who and Three Dog Night?
Dunphy – Is Grass Roots also the band that did “Midnight Confessions”?
Lifton – Yeah, the Grass Roots did “Midnight Confessions.” Also, “Let’s Live For Today.” This isn’t as good as those two. It tries to grab you in with that intro, the horns, and, as Jack points out, the minor-key descending progression, but it doesn’t fully work. The melody meanders too much, then they hit a chord and the chorus appears out of nowhere without any real build-up.
#19: Aretha Franklin, “Spanish Harlem” – #2 U.S., #14 U.K.
Feerick – Another one that’s not actually political in itself, but that takes on political resonances. The opening verse, with the image of a scrappy-but-beautiful flower pushing up through the cracks in the pavement, and the incorporation of Latin sounds into the soul groove — it’s not too difficult to map a sociopolitical reading onto that; in the early 1970s, Latinos were just beginning to exert a cultural and political presence, as African-Americans had before them.
It’s a neat bit of appropriation, taking what was originally an exotic-other fetish song, written by Jews for African-Americans to sing, and running it through a sort of notional multi-cultural filter — but ultimately as below, so above. At the time, there were high hopes for a black/brown alliance that would take on entrenched white power structures — but they came primarily from outside the Latino community; most Latino activists were more interested in finding their own strategies for confrontation or rapprochement with Anglo America, rather than piggybacking their struggle onto (or, if you’re feeling cynical, letting themselves be used as a stalking horse by) the Black civil rights movement. And so that alliance never fully materialized, leaving “Spanish Harlem” as something of a marching song without a movement; the sympathy of outsiders can only motivate a community so much.
Cummings – I don’t know about all of Jack’s political mumbo-jumbo (said the man who can politicize practically anything) … but here’s another example (like “I Say a Little Prayer,” which we covered recently) of Aretha’s extraordinary ability to take a complex, not-necessarily-easy-to-love song and make it sound both effortless and abundantly soulful. Ben E. King’s original, though very nice, seemed like it required a herculean effort on his part to match Lieber & Stoller’s Latin arrangement. Laura Nyro’s art-song cover, recorded as Aretha’s version was charting during the summer of ’71, offers a re-gendered take on the lyric (the “rose” is a boy, not a girl) but is kinda all over the place (like most of Nyro’s recordings). Neither of them can touch Aretha, who sounds like she’s just gliding through the song, bending it to her will rather than going through the contortions King and Nyro had done.
Dunphy – There really was a time when Aretha could do no wrong, you know? I don’t think anyone would have thought redoing this tune was a good idea, especially so close after Ben E. King did it, but she sells it with an entirely different feel in the arrangement. It’s easy from this distance to ask why people have such a respect and love for what Franklin did. All they see is the rather outsized physical traits and the diva aspects of her, and probably recall “Freeway of Love” and her spot in The Blues Brothers, drifting past the reality that in her most productive timeframe she produced as consistently as any artist ever could. If you bought an Aretha recording unheard, you weren’t wasting your money.
Lifton – Nobody could ride a groove better than Aretha, and it helped that this and Rock Steady (which, according to the Queen of Soul box set, was cut in the same goddamn day) had one of the greatest grooves ever cut. Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Donny Hathaway. All she has to do is show up. And she does more than that.
#20: Bread, “Baby I’m-a Want You” – #3 U.S., #14 U.K.
Feerick – Taking its place in the annals of great Italian-American inflected pop, alongside “ ’at’s Amore,” “Hot Diggity Boom Ziggity,” and, “Mama Mia (That’s-a One Spicy Meatball)!”
What I’m finding interesting about Bread, in this close-listening project, is that David Gates employs practically no concrete imagery in his lyrics. There are no lips, no eyes, no shining hair; he’s dealing purely in abstract notions — wanting, needing, darkest hours, love and affection — thoughts and feelings, with no grounding in the five senses. Aristotelean love songs, coming from a realm of pure ideas.
To get self-referential for a moment, young poets usually learn that sensory detail is the most effective strategy for conveying our emotional lives. T.S. Eliot called it the objective corellative; Ezra Pound warned writers to “go in fear of abstractions”; William Carlos Williams insisted on “No ideas but in things.” It’s what your English teacher meant when she said, “Show, don’t tell.” Gates is all tell, which is why, for such an ostensibly swoony song, “Baby I’m-a Want You” comes off as so weirdly unromantic.
Dunphy – “What I’m finding interesting about Bread, in this close-listening project, is that David Gates employs practically no concrete imagery in his lyrics. There are no lips, no eyes, no shining hair; he’s dealing purely in abstract notions — wanting, needing, darkest hours, love and affection…”
To quote another to answer your question, “Whatever gets you through the night.”
Cummings – Man, compared to this, “Make It With You” is Cock Rock! (I know that’s exactly what I said last time, in reverse, but I’m trying to make Popdose your go-to result for Google searches of “Bread” and “Cock Rock.”) Anyway, I greatly prefer this song to the other one, mostly because of that transition in the middle of the first (only!) verse, and the way Gates sings “Your lovin’ and affection / Givin’ me direction.” It’s not a hell of a lot to hang a song on, but it’s just barely enough to keep me listening through the first chorus and bridge. Then my fingers inevitably reach for the tuner, in search of a male voice with more testosterone, or a female voice with pretty much the same amount of estrogen.
Feerick – When I sing along (and it is a very catchy melody), I always sing, “Your lovin’ and affection / Give me an erection.” Which improves the song immeasurably, simply by giving it a grounding in sensory detail.
Dunphy – Bread; it fills you up but offers little to no nutritional value. And then we have “Baby I’m-A Want You” which, I’m guessing if I was using it as a way to pick up women, is not going to work (aside from the fatness, the baldness, and the general fugliness I exude). But it leads me to wonder if it worked back then because if it did, man, were people easy back in the ’70s!
I’ve gone on record as saying, really, the only Bread song that does it for me is “The Guitar Man” which is just as wussy as these previous entries. Even so, there was that ropy wah-pedal sound that seemed to break the tune out of its gluteny goodness and into something else. “Baby I’m-A Want You” is just a lot of acoustic strumming looking for a pickup line that isn’t so lame, and being denied.
David Medsker – Would that be the first use of ‘I’m-a’ in speech? David Gates: The Original Gangsta.
Cummings – Kanye Gates to Taylor: “Baby, I’m-a let you finish.”
Dunphy – David Gates tribute to the late Davy Jones: I’m-a Believer?
Lifton – Or Mick Jagger’s tribute to David Gates: “I’m a MON-KAAAAAYYYYY!!!!!!”
Oh, wait. The Stones song was released first. Never mind.
Anyway, I’ve always thought “Jane” by Ben Folds Five reminded me of a particular soft rock song but could never figure out which one. Now I know. I wouldn’t say it’s ripping it off, but just that there’s a similar vibe in structure and arrangement. The difference is that I like the Ben Folds song, and don’t like this one.
#21: Gladys Knight and the Pips, “If I Were Your Woman” – #9 U.S.
Feerick – I forget who first floated the idea — it may have been Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs, but I’m not 100% certain — that the Beatles’ “She Loves You,” on the surface a sweet and hopeful lyric about forgiveness and reconciliation, can be read as one of the most emotionally-devastating songs in all pop. The refrain melody accentuates the word “loves,” and so do most listeners — but if we emphasize the pronoun, we are forced to consider, for the first time, the feelings of the narrator: She loves you — the cruel, hurtful one who doesn’t deserve it — means she doesn’t love me, the caring and sensitive soul to whom she comes crying. You know you should be glad — but are you, you callous bastard? No, you just take her for granted and hurt her again.
You can do the same trick with “If I Was Your Woman.” Accentuate the “If,” and it’s a sad song of longing and regret — “Just My Imagination” all over again. Accentuate the “I,” and all the anger emerges: “If I — rather than that pernicious viper with whom you are wasting your time — was your woman, well…” It’s kinda like one of those Magic Eye puzzles, in that respect; shift your perspective, and a whole new thing comes into focus.
Dunphy – Jack is entirely right that this song, when viewed from a different perspective, is saying something altogether different. Was that intentional? Hard to say, but on whatever level you accept this song you have to admit Knight + Pips have it locked up. It makes me wonder why she, at this stage in music history, feels almost second-tier. She was as good as any of her peers, and sometimes better than certain marquee names (cough Diana Ross cough). But when you think Gladys Knight, you think less about her and The Pips and more about how ridiculous a name The Pips is.
Cummings – This song is something of a clearinghouse for unrequited-love-song tropes. Two of them come in the first verse, yet are oddly contradictory –“you’d be weak as a lamb,” Gladys sings, but in the very next line she posits how if her would-be man ever walked out the door, she’d beg him for more. The latter bit reminds me of a dozen other songs, most memorably (for me) a Trisha Yearwood ballad called “Down on My Knees.” In the next verse she dogs her man’s current girl with a “she’s not good enough for you” sentiment that was recently repeated by Taylor Swift in “You Belong With Me.” Why am I referencing two generations of country women — one from mine, another from my daughter’s? I don’t know, except to note that country, R&B and pop are replete with songs like “If I Were Your Woman.” This is a good one, though.
Lifton – I know what you’re getting at, Jon, and we could probably find tons more like that. I know I’ve talked about it on Popdose at some point over the years (probably on the podcast), but there was a great episode of This American Life five years where a girl went through a difficult break-up and realized that nearly every emotion she was feeling was a line from “Against All Odds.” That’s why a song like that – and “If I Were Your Woman” work so well. You can ignore the lines that don’t apply to you, but the ones that do hit you hard. And if it’s coming out of a voice like Gladys’, that’s even better.
#22: The Chi-Lites, “Have You Seen Her” – #3 U.S. and U.K.; the highest-charting single for the group since “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” hit #26 in 1970.
Dunphy – While I really do love the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her,” the line “Why, oh why did she have to leave and go away” has always made me a little squirmy. Have you ever tried to leave and stay, or remain in place and go away?
Feerick – The Chi-Lites should have been as big as the Temptations — they’re just that good. And like the Temps, they combine outstanding vocal soul with psychedelic rock production. There’s an Echoplex/Vibrolux guitar part buried in the mix, and the flutey keyboards that dominate this — is that a Mellotron? Strip away the vocals and this could almost be a Bevis Frond backing track. Strip away the instruments and you’ve got a fugual stack o’ vocals to rival the Beach Boys. Mix it back together and add that spoken vocal — dejected, but leavened with a hint of self-mockery — and you’ve got a song that beats “Nothing Compares 2 U” past the post by a good fifteen years. God Almighty, this is good. Thanks, Time-Life, for taking us out of ‘71 on such a high.
Cummings – Hammer Time! Is it possible there are Gen-Ys out there who have heard Hammer’s lame-o version but not the Chi-Lites’ classic? One shudders to think. What’s really sad is that Hammer was able to build a “rap” that pleased the tweens by co-opting the original’s awesome spoken-word intro. I love that one, anti-“Greatest Love of All” line: “You know, tomorrow’s their future … but for me, just another day.” The next line starts to get a little creepy, though — we’ve already established that every day he sits on the same ol’ bench to watch the children play … and then we learn “they all gather ’round me … (huh!) they seem to know my name!” In 2012, a single guy who lures the kids to his park bench is … can you say “pedophile”? I knew that you could. His girl better come back before he winds up on Megan’s List.
For obvious reasons, I always think of “Have You Seen Her” as a bookend to the Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” I like to think the protagonists are the same guy. His girl comes back, but then he gets another lady on the side … and eventually has to break off the affair with another classic spoken-word intro, referencing “my obligations, and the ties that you have.” LOVE that line!
Lifton – There’s a lot to like here, of course, but I can’t get past the spoken verses. The guy’s a great singer, and it’s being wasted. It sounds unnatural to hear him try to fit the meter, like when I had to recite Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 in front of my whole 9th Grade English class.
Feerick – Ah, but did you have a backing track like this? Did you, hell.