Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 43

Written by Digging for Gold, Music

It takes a strong piece of music to overcome sub-par song lyrics. We’re looking at you, America.

AM Gold: 1972

As we ran down the third batch of tunes from AM Gold: 1972, lyrics took center stage. Song lyrics are a tricky thing. If they’re done well they can elevate a mediocre song to greatness (or least mediocre+). Conversely, bad lyrics can weigh down an otherwise fantastic track like an albatross made out of words. It takes a strong piece of music to overcome sub-par song lyrics.

We’re looking at you, America.

(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)


#11: America, “A Horse With No Name” – #1 U.S., #3 U.K.

Jack Feerick – Cryptic, or just dumb? My high tolerance for “A Horse With No Name” rises, undoubtedly, from my study of Eastern wisdom traditions. Read it as a a parable, or as a koan, a riddle with no answer; the value is all in the pondering. The steady pulse, the static chord progression, the one-note melody — all add up to a trance effect. Or maybe it is just stupid. But I’d wager it’s knowingly stupid.

David Medsker – ‘Knowingly stupid’ – my new favorite expression.

Dw. Dunphy – Heck, it’s practically on my birth certificate…

Andy Hermann – I’ve always thought lyrics like “The heat was hot” and “There were plants and birds and rocks and things” were the opposite of cryptic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…there’s a kind of genius in writing lyrics that are so specifically non-specific. Which is just another way of saying they’re “knowingly stupid,” I guess.

Dunphy – Okay, let’s just cut through the baloney (bologna?) and admit that everything about this song aside from the wordless “la, la, la-aa-la-la-la” bridge is in utter service to that bridge. They could be singing “I ate me a sandwich and it gave me some gas” and so long as the la-la’s are in full effect, you’re golden. I always assumed, with nothing but a sneaking suspicion and an understanding of those times, that this was just Gerry and Dewey’s recollections from some peyote ceremony. To that, I challenge our industrious Popdose readership to sync up a video of this song with the Simpsons video of Homer wandering the desert, suffering the effects of the Insanity Pepper he ate.

Jon Cummings – Usually I’m so tired of marveling at the dubious quality of the lyric-writing in the first two verses that I rarely consider the third, but that last line may be the most nonsensical of all — “Under the city, lies a heart made of ground / But the humans will give no love.” A heart made of ground? But, lookit, it’s difficult to argue with the acoustic-guitar hook or the arrangement — well, maybe you can argue with that solo. The fact that this song and “Heart of Gold” were in the Top 5 at the same time means the spring of ’72 was some kind of high-water mark for acoustic folky-mellowness on pop radio. (Never mind the fact that some guy who sounds a lot like Neil was singing about a “heart made of ground” at the same time Neil himself was searching for a heart of gold…)

David Lifton – I’ve said this before on the podcast, but the best thing ever said about this song was by Randy Newman, who said it was about “a kid who thinks he’s taken acid.” Once you’ve heard that, all other discussion of the song become moot.

Dunphy – “A Horse With No Name” has become the go-to track for the study of terrible lyrics (in songs that became hits — there are plenty of non-hit terrible lyrics) but it is instructive at this point to actually present they lyrics. We may have readers that know the tune and the fact that it is wacky, but have never really taken the time to read what the clamor is about.

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life

There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound
I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground

But the humans will give no loveYou see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

Yah, we be present they lyrics, glory be!

(I hate morning typing.)

Feerick – Yeah, that’ll kill some column inches.

Or, y’know, we could just post a link.

Dunphy – Pshaw. That’s too complicated.

Cummings – You typed those out off the top of your head, didn’t you? Oooooo, do “Tin Man” next!

This suddenly reminds me of my 6th-grade music class — half guitar lessons, half music appreciation — when the teacher assigned us to write down the lyrics to a song we liked and bring them in to recite for the class. (No internet at the time, of course, so  we had to actually listen to the songs.) I brought in “Lyin’ Eyes” — and the kid next to me brought in “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”

Dunphy – “I’m ‘Enery The Eighth I Am!”


#12: Looking Glass, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” – #1 U.S., #51 U.K.

Feerick – I always think of “Brandy” along with the Association’s “Windy” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” as a trilogy of cautionary tales for prospective parents on not saddling your baby girl with a name that makes it impossible for anyone to take her seriously.

Mamas and papas, I’m talking to you directly here: When you name your child Sundown, or Windy, or what have you, you are essentially consigning her to life as a barmaid, gun moll, and or biker chick.

I used to know a girl whose name — I hesitate to type it in unaltered form, because she’s a nice person and doesn’t deserve a Google-whacking — was St0rmii R3inh4rdt. Funny, conscientious, an academic powerhouse, and doomed always to be underestimated. Say her name aloud; roll it off your tongue. Now try it in a few phrases: U.S. District Attorney St0rmii R3inh4rdt. Fortune 500 CEO St0rmii R3inh4rdt. It’s not really working, is it? How about Adult Video Award winner St0rmii R3inh4rdt? That sounds more plausible. Frighteningly so, in fact.

Parents, your daughter will bear her name for all her life. And a name that seems adorable for an infant may prove inappropriate, even damaging, for a full-grown woman. So unless you want your daughter to end her days a-pining for a faithless sailor-man, you should not give her a name that sounds like the Happy Hour drink special at Bennigan’s.

Celebrities, that goes double for you. And stop naming your sons after superheroes; that’s just pathetic.

Dunphy – This song gets so much love from barroom karaoke events. But more than that, even if it is severely dated in its sound, there is an ease about it that is undeniable. Pair this up with King Harvest’s “Dancin’ In The Moonlight.” But I will second what Jack said and implore future procreators out there to be very careful about what you name your daughters. Seriously. Or if you absolutely must give your daughters stripper names, give them a backup of a 19th Century middle name like “Bertha,” “Gertrude,” or “Henrietta.” Only you can prevent stripper pole skid rash. ONLY YOU.

Cummings – Wait a minute — I thought we had an agreement. Sailors are entitled to “a girl in every port,” and the girls in those ports are supposed to be OK with that arrangement … the way Frenchie in Grease has all those photos of the military guys. Yet Brandy pines for this one guy she can’t have, and she can’t get (or doesn’t want) any action from the seamen for whom she’s pouring whiskey and wine? What kind of sexual revolution IS this?

Lifton – Dunphy’s right about this and “Dancing In The Moonlight’s” laid-back appeal. I don’t think I ever gave any thought to the lyrics before now. I’ve always just been too busy enjoying the interplay of the Strat and the Fender Rhodes. And, of course, the horns. Everything’s better with horns.


#13: The Main Ingredient, “Everybody Plays the Fool” – #3 U.S.; featuring Cuba Gooding, Sr. on lead vocals.

Feerick – Ace tune. All parts working together — old-school harmonies, wry lead vocal performance, all the hooks in place. It’s the details that tell the story; that nagging little piccolo-and-xylophone tag, a nyah-nyah bringing home, with good humor, just what a fool you’ve been.

Dunphy – If you can get through the pre-sung rap, your patience will be rewarded. This is a wonderful little tune with great harmonies, that highly-unorthodox instrumentation hook, and a chorus you sing along to whether you want to or not; it’s that addictive.

But you have to feel bad for Senior Gooding. He was so proud after Jerry Maguire and L’il Cuba’s win, and it gave his own career a nice lift too. What kind of lift did he get out of Boat Trip?

Cummings – It’s nice to get a little bubblegum with the soul once in awhile, and that xylophone (or whatever it is) hook is about as bubblegum as it gets. It’s also nice to hear the word “factual” used so prominently in a song — can anybody think of another song that uses it? (No counting the use of “satisfactual” in “Zip a Dee Doo Da.”)

Lifton – I guess Dunphy, that Cuba, Jr’s. performance in Boat Trip is proof that the song was right.


#14: Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, “Sylvia’s Mother” – #5 U.S., #2 U.K.; the group’s first hit.

Feerick – I don’t think I’d ever heard this, but within one verse I knew, without looking it up, that this was written by Shel Silverstein. The cadence, the structure, even the conceit are absolute tells. Then again, I have a nine-year old son, and we read a lot of Shel Silverstein.

Anyway, this is pretty great. It would be easy for the song to come off as silly, but it’s heartbreaking. The vocals have a white-soul quiver to them, a tremolo almost like the singer were coming through a Leslie speaker — Louis Armstrong used to sound like that, on the ballads — amping up to a sob as the character gets more and more desperate, but never tipping over into the ridiculous. It stays grounded, and has some real emotional power.

The fiddle is gorgeous, too, which helps.

Dunphy – Wow, this isn’t doing it for me at all. Give me “Ms. Jackson” instead.

I’ve never been a big Dr. Hook supporter anyhow, with neither this nor the band’s other hits like “Love You A Little More.” “When your body’s had enough of me…?” Seriously? “Sylvia’s Mother” is just about as spineless, maybe more spineless. The weepy delivery of some dude calling up to either make up with, or at least make peace with, his ex, only to get her mom on the phone instead just instills no sense of sympathy from me. Clearly this guy needed a swift boot up the stern before, now he deserves it a little mo-ore…

It occurred to me that there are a few other mellow bawlers out there that made significant use of the whole phone call framing device. The one that first springs to mind is Jim Croce’s “Operator” (or as he sang it, “Awp-uh-ree-tuh”) and I believe we’ll be hearing from that one soon enough.

Cummings – Gotta disagree with Jack on the quality of Ray Sawyer’s vocals on this song. All that quavering is so melodramatic, and inauthentic to the situation, that it sounds like Ray’s trying to be funny — as though he figures if it’s a Shel Silverstein song, there must be something ironic going on, so let’s go to the edge of sobbing. For me, it doesn’t work at all — but then I’ve never had a #5 pop hit, so that the hell do I know? But I prefer his vocals when he’s not laying it on quite so thick — it seems he dropped much of the posturing when the band dropped the “Medicine Show” addendum. Beyond all of that, I’m a fan of the difficult-phone-call framing device in pop songs, but here it seems like the operator’s request for more money is just a slight annoyance compared to the bad news Mrs. Avery is imparting. Give me “Operator,” or even “Answering Machine,” over this. (Yes! I said it! I like “Answering Machine”!)

Lifton – This one doesn’t do it for me. It’s too repetitive and yeah, he goes overboard with the vocals. I was hoping it had a clever little twist at the end, like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” but it was soon made clear that it wouldn’t happen. Instead, we’re left with a song that probably goes on longer than the actual phone call.

Feerick – Well, fuck alla youse guys. I still like it.


#15: The Chi-Lites, “Oh Girl” – #1 U.S., #14 U.K.; their first and only #1 single.

Feerick – Killer hooks — I love the harmonica — and a blockbuster vocal. But the lyric is giving me some major mixed messages. He’d be in trouble if she left him — so he’s leaving her? How does that work, exactly?

Dunphy – What do “Everybody Plays The Fool” and “Oh Girl” have in common? Yes indeed, Aaron Neville covered them both, and where Neville kind of works on the former, he’s outgunned on the latter. Far too smooth and sta-cca-aa-aa-to. This is a song that was meant to be sung by a proud guy, a little rough around the edges, maybe a bit of a badass, but he’s been cut down by love. The original knew this. The cover did not.

Cummings – According to Wikipedia, it’s a melodica, not a harmonica. Why didn’t they just go for the keytar? Anyway, that six-note solo (seven, maybe, if you count the bending of the penultimate note) is pretty much a “Name That Tune” go-to for ’70s soul ballads. A couple seconds into it on the radio, and at least two generations of listeners know exactly where they are. As for the confusion in the lyric, isn’t that pretty much standard-issue male-perspective stuff? “Baby, I know it isn’t gonna work out, and I’m gonna be leavin’ any day now — but don’t you DARE try to leave me!” To be honest, I never got far enough into an evaluation of the lyric to care about the male-pride thing, because I’m forever entranced by that opening chorus. “I don’t know where to look for love, I just don’t know how.” Ain’t that the truth.

Feerick – Wikipedia’s full of it. There is a melodica on this record, but it shows up in the fade-out, playing call-and-response with what is plainly a harmonica. A melodica is a keyboard instrument; you can’t bend notes on it any more than you can on an accordion.

Lifton – I think it was Dave Marsh who said that this was basically soul’s take on the introspective male singer-songwriter thing that was going on at the time. I think he’s got a point, especially with lines like, “I just feel so out of place” and “Girl, I gotta get away from here.”


#16: Danny O’Keefe, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” – #9 U.S.; this single is a re-recording of the song, which first appeared on O’Keefe’s 1971 debut LP.

Feerick – I first heard this song via Simon Bonney’s cover (from 1995’s Everyman, still one of my favorite albums of the ‘90s), and fell in love with it immediately. It’s a marvelous piece of songcraft, taking that character we all know — the small-town high school big shot who never moved away, a fading Johnny Football Hero who spends his days working at his uncle’s used-car lot and his nights on a barstool, holding court for a dwindling entourage of cronies — and making him sympathetic by giving him flashes of self-awareness. Autobiographical or not, it feels lived-in.

The circularity of it — starting from the problem that Everybody’s gone away, winding through a litany of troubles and possible solutions, only to come back to Everybody’s leaving town — feels very true to the way depression works, the way it spins your thoughts into an inescapable spiral.

Dunphy – I’ve never heard this song. Another track Time-Life seems to have materialized straight from the time/space paradox, but it is not bad at all. I could stand listening to this tune every now and then. But man, look at that album cover for O’Keefe! Jeez, did they steal that from a paper towel wrapper or a cigarette ad or what?!

Cummings –  I don’t have much to say about this song. If it were any more interesting lyrically or sophisticated melodically, it could have been a Guy Clark or Townes Van Zant song … but then it never would have made pop radio. So, way to dumb it down, Danny! (I guess) Anyway, I can’t believe I can write the words “Ahmet Ertegun produced this record,” but he did. WTF?

Lifton – Well, now we know where Springsteen got the inspiration for “Glory Days.”

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