Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 41
Thus begins our journey into AM Gold: 1972. And hey, look, Three Dog Night is still hanging around!
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#1: Three Dog Night, “Black and White” – #1 U.S.
Jack Feerick - With 1972, we’re now entering into an era of musical history where I remember hearing these songs, when I was a child, but most of them I’ve never really listened to. I was still too young to buy my own records, and my older brothers and sisters had moved on to AOR; Bowie, Aretha, James Taylor, the Who. The little stack of 45s by the hi-fi stopped growing in about 1970.
So. These songs. I know them, and I don’t know them. “Black and White,” for instance: I’d forgotten the island rhythm (rocksteady? soca?) that underpins it, or the rinky-dink twinkle of the piano, and its pleasing contrast with the monster acid-fuzz guitar. It’s not better than I remembered, exactly, but I like it more than I thought I would. Does that make sense?
Dw. Dunphy - This week is full of goodness. Even the badness is goodness. The only song that doesn’t do it for me is the equal-parts heavy handedness/sing-songyness of “Black and White” which sounds disconcertingly like “The Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly.” To me, if you’re going to tackle a big issue like racial harmony, the worst way to do it is to treat it too lightly, not because of the obvious seriousness of the subject matter but because the lightness is usually handled so poorly. I’m thinking about “Ebony and Ivory” with it’s handholding-around-the-world mentality. If all our social ills could be solved so easily, most would agree it would have been done by now. The reduction of such complexities bugs me.
So does “Black and White,” but I suppose I cannot fault Three Dog Night too much, because so much of the pop charts, when tackling the big issues, did so with somewhat naive, surface solutions. “We can get along just by getting along, right?”
“Well, not really. See, when you walk down the street and when I walk down the street, police look at us differently. When I am standing at the magazine rack and you stand at the magazine rack, which person does the owner assume will pay for the magazine and which does he assume will steal it?”
“Dude, just put some flowers in your hair, take my hand and sing “Kum-Ba-Yah,” okay?”
Matthew Bolin - We were really in the midst of a whole “I’m OK, You’re OK” period of race relations on the pop charts in this part of the 70′s, weren’t we? This, “Brother Louie”, “Why Can’t We Be Friends”. Sly in the Family Stone were WAY ahead of the curve when they put out “Everyday People” back in 1968, weren’t they?
I can’t escape one constant feeling I get about this tune: it sounds like a children’s song. The repetitive, tinkly piano line, the poppy island rhythms, lines like “together we learn to read and write”. Why haven’t The Wiggles ever covered this? I would not be shocked that Three Dog Night recorded it, submitted it to Sesame Street, and then the Children’s Television Workshop said “Thanks but no thanks. This is WAY too cheesy”.
Finally, I can’t leave open a chance to point out that Brian Wilson wanted Three Dog Night to be signed to the Beach Boys’ vanity label Brother Records, with Wilson writing songs and producing for them. But according to singer Chuck Negron other members of the Beach Boys (with special focus given by him to Mike Love) strong armed Brian to not give away his songs. This struggle led Three Dog Night to sign to another label. They then went on to have 11 Top Ten hits between 1969-1974 (one of the fast accumulations of ten-plus Top Tens in the history of Billboard), and by the mid-70s Mike Love was fronting an oldies band for all intents and purposes, and might have been wishing he had some of that Three Dog money.
David Medsker - Three Dog Night: the band that wouldn’t leave.
David Lifton – It’s strange to deride this one for having a childish melody while at the same time praising “Everyday People,” whose tune is the same as that playground anthem, “Bolin is a baby / Stick your head in gravy / Wash it out with bubblegum / And send it to the Navy.”
But that’s the point of both songs: put the message in a way that a child can understand, and it will stick in their brain forever. Maybe you can argue execution, both in songwriting and performance, but the intent is the same.
Jon Cummings - No one has yet commented on the fact that you could paste the melody of our #3 track’s chorus right on top of “Black and White”‘s rhythm section and hardly know the difference. That’s a simplification, of course, but it’s not a criticism — in fact, it says something positive about pop radio in ’72 that we certainly can’t say today. Here is a criticism, though: It would be nice to be able to say that “Black and White” has a profound message that offered more than feel-good platitudes for the Silent Majority as they lined up to confirm Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of blink-and-you-missed-it racism. But it wouldn’t be true, would it? (It doesn’t help that the scattershot nature of TDN’s career leaves one to believe they were at least as committed to human-bullfrog relations as to black-white togetherness.) “Everyday People” was more profound, even though it’s even more of a nursery rhyme. As a matter of fact, to continue down Matthew’s list, “Brother Louie” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” both have nursery-rhyme qualities as well. What gives? I know — let’s ask Michael Jackson! “You see, it’s not about races, just places — faces! Where your blood comes from is where your space is! I see the bright gettin’ duller. I’m not gonna spend my life bein’ a color!” Now, that’s profound.
#2: Jim Croce, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” – #8 U.S.; Croce’s debut single and the first of his five Top 10 U.S. hits.
Feerick – I listened to this waiting for certain lines to arrive, and when they didn’t I realized I had mixed this song mixed up with “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” It truly is a pity that Jim Croce had to die so young, depriving us of such masterworks as “Gunfightin’ Son of a Gun,” “Troublesome Bonnie and Clyde,” and “Cash-Grabbin’ Outlaw So-and-So.”
Shit, the presence of Jim Croce reminds me — we’re probably going to have to reckon with Harry Chapin at some point in this series, aren’t we? That’s gonna get ugly.
Bolin - Jack points out something which really has bothered me about this track: Considering the limited output that we have from Croce, it’s odd that two of his few songs released as singles are so damn similar. Did Croce just really have a chip on his shoulder because of his folk and soft rock leanings, and had to balance it out some “harder” material about guys that don’t take no guff? Considering that the You Don’t Mess Around With Jim album also contains tracks entitled “Hard Time Losin’ Man” and “Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy)”, I’d have to lean towards the answer being “yes”.
Dunphy - And later I think came “Roller Derby Queen.”
Bolin – As for the song itself, I like the hard thump of the rhythm track, but I’ve never really been into “finger-picking” county-rock songs. And it is just SO much like “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” that I can’t really separate the two much in my mind, and the later song I’ve always found to be superior, with its Fats Domino-styled boogie-woogie piano and soulful walking bassline. Compared to that, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” just gets a bit of a shoulder shrug from me. In other words, If I was in the backseat of a car and this came on, I wouldn’t ask for the station to be changed, but if I was in the front and had control of the radio, I’d likely look for something else.
Lifton - Two of Jim Croce’s biggest hits were about badass black dudes and yet he is considered one of the whitest guys in chart history. “The ink is black / The page is white,” indeed.
Cummings - I can certify that I was one of (surely) millions of 6-year-olds who spent at least a few minutes of 1972 testing Croce’s hypothesis about spitting into the wind. For those of you who, all these years later, can’t differentiate between “Jim” and “Leroy,” there’s your difference. I agree that “Leroy” is, overall, a much better song, but that chorus on “Jim” — with its references to Superman and the Lone Ranger, which resonated with a generation of boys who could still catch the TV shows in reruns – made the song just as impactful, and made the rest of Croce’s (brief) career possible.
#3: Johnny Nash, “I Can See Clearly Now” – #1 U.S., #5 U.K.
Feerick – More island sounds — and give Johnny Nash some credit; androgynous voice and all, he was an early champion of a young Jamaican upstart named Robert Nesta Marley, whose “Stir It Up” Nash brought into the charts.
Musically, this doesn’t do much for me until that extraordinary bridge, which highlights not just Nash’s vocals, but the synthesizer. Notionally, it’s playing the role of a horn section; in 1972, though, it was probably cheaper to hire five horn players than to rent a Moog a guy to program it, so I can only assume it was a stylistic choice — especially given that there’s no real attempt to make the synth sound less synth-y; if anything, the squelches and burbles under the final verse emphasize it. It’s a good choice, though. It blows the song open in interesting ways.
Bolin - God DAMN that’s a powerful synth in the bridge! Any louder and it would have turned this laid back number into something that could be played at Halloween. That said, this is just a smooth grove in the best, non-ironic sense of the word, and it should be strongly noted that this comes two years before Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” supposedly brought reggae (and Marley) to a mainstream audience. That myth is torn apart by both this song, and the fact that Nash’s version of “Stir it Up” earlier in the year was actually a Top 15 Billboard hit.
Dunphy - There was something thrilling about those minor notes in “I Can See Clearly Now,” especially for a tot as young as I was then. And the bridge portion (“Nothing but blue skies..”) moves through unexpected key changes with almost a hypnotic effect. Without those elements, the song would likely have sounded as simplistic and one-note as “Black and White” does to me now. I will also say that this song came to me at a very innocent time, when music was just music and stood independent of genre. So this was one of the earliest appearances of reggae on American pop charts. I never considered that before. I just heard it as one of the great pop tunes of the 1970s and left it at that.
Lifton - I’ve always loved this one. The drums between the verses are so incongruous with the song’s groove and yet it works so well.
Cummings - A wonderful song, of course, despite my inability to separate it from Windex (damn you, Madison Avenue!). However, we rarely deal with the fact that Johnny Nash grew up in Houston — though no doubt it was the “Trenchtown” section of Houston – and was involved (as a record-label exec) with the Cowsills before he jetted down to Kingston and became a reggae carpetbagger. I suppose we should just be thankful that Nash recorded with the Wailers and gave Bob some early exposure, and I suppose that we should place him in the Paul Simon/”Graceland” category as a popularizer of an exotic musical style … rather than placing him in, say, the Pat Boone or Vanilla Ice category. Still … one wishes that a version recorded by a Texan hadn’t been the lone U.S.-charting version of “Stir It Up.”
#4: Al Green, “I’m Still in Love With You” – #3 U.S., #35 U.K.
Feerick - What I love about Al Green’s records — what sets the Hi brand of soul apart from Motown — is how lean the records sound. Willie Mitchell keeps the arrangements tasteful but not lush, and you can imagine a really good four-piece band knocking these tunes out onstage. Even when there are strings, as here, you can imagine everyone squeezed into oa single room, cutting this thing live. It gives quality of either intimacy or scrappiness, depending on how you characterize it. Listening to a Motown record, you can hardly envision the recording studio at all; the songs arrive at your ears as purely emotional constructs, and create their own figurative spaces. With Hi, the experience of the music is never far removed from the reality of the act of making music.
Bolin - The arrangement and (of course) Rev. Green’s vocals make this. As far as Green’s hits go, this one’s right in the middle of the pack in terms of quality. Nowhere near as tuneful as “Let’s Stay Together” or “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” but still good enough that one can get easily swept away in it, And let me say this, the man knew how to work falsetto into his singing better than any man on the planet–better than any doo wop singer, better than Barry Gibb, certainly better than (ugh) Frankie Valli. Green’s falsetto turns on a dime, exposing his vulnerability to the woman just at the right moment before switching back to upper-register non-falsetto notes, making her go “What was that?!” and he’s like “Nothing, baby. How about some more champagne?”
Dunphy - There’s hardly a bad Al Green track from this era. While my favorite remains “Tired of Being Alone,” my memories of summer BBQs at my Uncle Al & Aunt Sally’s with them spinning album after Al Green album on the back patio represents some of the happiest days of youth. His voice is a big fur coat, jogging in slow motion, the fur just kinda rising and falling effortlessly. Is it any wonder his Greatest Hits disc is something of a required purchase for music fans?
Lifton – Jack, I disagree with your take on the inability to hear the room on a Motown record. The Snakepit was just a much smaller room.
But as much as Green’s voice rules here, how about giving some credit to Al Jackson, Jr. on the drums? He barely leaves the hi-hat and he keeps whomping the shit out the snare with the butt end of his stick. Goddamn, he was amazing.
Cummings - I’ve always heard this as something of a holding pattern, merging the sentiment of “Let’s Stay Together” with the general groove of “Tired of Being Alone” without being nearly as regal (or essential) as either of those two predecessors. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny a song whose title immediately triggers a call-and-response, “Sho’ ’nuff in love with you!” And not-quite-first-rate Al Green is better than practically anything else Popdose might ask one to hear on a Wednesday morning…
#5: Gilbert O’Sullivan, “Alone Again (Naturally)” – #1 U.S., #3 U.K.; his first charting single in America.
Feerick – Without even addressing the morbid lyric — miserable to point of self-parody — two things strike me immediately. First, this is a lot more plodding than I’d remembered. The hammering piano and drums are hot in the mix, while the fingerpicked guitar — my favorite element of the song, and the one that gives it what lilt it has — is relatively low. O’Sullivan’s vocal, too, is staccato and halting. I recalled the tune as breezy, but instead it stumps and clomps.
Second, Gilbert O’Sullivan working that Paul McCartney voice — fruity, quasi-posh, half-swallowed — with no shame whatever.
Dunphy - Never has morbidity been so pretty, and no one could claim this song as anything less than the ultimate cure for Zoloft. “Alone Again (Naturally)” has become a punchline over the years (and likely as much in it’s own time) for the hapless, sad-sack story of the character involved. It slathers on the woe and misery as thick as a fluffer-nutter of pain could ever be, and then mocks you when Diabetes sets in, but there is redemption in the midst. How? It is a beautiful-sounding song that even if you aren’t a music dork (like us), you know. This song is part of our culture. It will outlive us. For every person reading our column this week, half may have required looking up “Black and White” to familiarize themselves with it. I would hope they didn’t need to do the same with “I’m Still In Love With You,” but they might. But they knew this right from the title, so for recognition alone, O’Sullivan wins.
But yeah, the song is one major bummer.
Bolin - I must say that I get O’Sullivan and Terry “Seasons in the Sun” Jacks mixed up. They’re both 1970′s soft rock singers with white-guy afros who are best know for extremely maudlin hits. Their biggest hits also both sound to me like songs an old Catskills comic would sing as act-filler, along the lines of “Oh Mein Papa” and “Sunrise, Sunset”. Unlike Jacks’ song though, which is a straight up “sit in the tub and get out the razor blades” kind of tune, I have a bit of respect for how the brightness of “Alone Again”‘s arrangement both belies and emphasizes the sad undercurrent of the lyrics. I especially like the subtle but lovely string arrangement and the classical guitar solo, which reminds be a (little bit) of George Harrison’s solo in “And I Love Her”. But two things really keep me from push the song over the line from like to love: the self-pitying smugness of the parenthetical “Naturally” and the way it’s delivered in the song as a lyrical tag, and O’Sullivan’s vocals, which sound like an out of breath Barry Gibb singing into a microphone wrapped in wet laundry.
And then there are two other things that tan my hide about the song/ singer: First: Gilbert O’Sullivan?! You’ve got to be freaking kidding me. I don’t care if your last name was actually O’Sullivan, that’s just ridiculous. Was his second choice going to be Roger O’Hammerstein? Gershwin O’Gershwin? Second, it was partly O’Sullivan’s lawsuit against Biz Markie’s use of this song that killed the creative age of sampling. Now, as long as you’re having to pay up to get copyright clearance, why just use three second of a song for a backbeat? Why not just sing a new song over a copy of the entire original? So, in a way, thanks to O’Sullivan, not only do we have this maudlin ditty, we get things like P.Diddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You”, and every damn excruciating thing that JR Rotem has produced.
Lifton - It’s bad enough I have to hear this song, does it have to be sequenced right after Al Green? Talk about a weenie-shrinker…
Cummings - I will now sheepishly admit that it wasn’t until Matthew’s discursion that I recognized the referential nature of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s name. How did that escape me for four decades? Cripes. Anyway, as this song has traditionally served as anesthesia for however many fleeting seconds I’ve allowed it to play on the radio, my thoughts about it are as disjointed as the song itself is rambling. Most crucially, do Sugar Ray admit that they cribbed a portion of the lyric for “Fly” from Gilbert’s line “And at 65 years old / My mother, God rest her soul / Blah blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah…” Jeez, the song does prattle on, doesn’t it? It is the very model of a modern mushy schmaltz-a-thon. Of course, when the plausibly pedophiliac “Clair” came out later that year, Gilbert was the very model of a creepy male degenerate. (Sorry, just making up for lost time. I’ll come up with something worthwhile eventually.)
Lifton - As if we needed another reason to hate Sugar Ray.