Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 44
Since we started our journey through Time-Life’s AM Gold series, we’ve been accused on multiple occasions of treating songs or artists unfairly — more specifically, of being snarky for snark’s sake. And while it is true that we pull no punches when a dud of a song pops up in the rotation, we are most definitely approaching this endeavor with the hope of discovering (or re-discovering) some great, old music. But if we think a song sucks, we’re gonna say so.
Certainly we’re not passing judgment on anyone who likes those songs, and we’re not trying to stomp on anyone’s memories. But as as we’ve found out many times already in this series, just because a song was popular doesn’t mean it was good. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.
Anyway, on to the final group of tunes from 1972!
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#17: Seals & Crofts, “Summer Breeze” – #6 U.S.; the group’s first charting single.
Jack Feerick – I’m a little embarrassed by how much I like this. Should I be? I mean, I’m a guy from the suburbs; my idea of perfection is an afternoon working in the garden, gathering in something for the table — strawberries, maybe, or fresh greens, or fruit from the pear tree — then sitting on the porch of my house on the hill, grilling steaks and listening to the neighborhood kids playing down the block. Why shouldn’t there be a Steely Dan for me, too?
Chris Holmes – I have a perhaps unhealthy amount of love for Seals & Crofts, so much so that I’m working on an album-by-album guide of the career. (Which turned out to be a bit of a mistake, but that’s for another time.) “Summer Breeze” and the album it came from was one of the pop loves of my young life and still is. Those two really got the most out of a two-part harmony in pop music since the Everly Brothers I think.
I also can’t recommend the Summer Breeze album enough. It really is outstanding.
Dan Wiencek – “Summer Breeze” is a faultlessly crafted slice of AM pop, but there always seemed something slightly off about it for me, and a few years back I finally figured out what it was: the melody doesn’t match the lyric. With its images of domesticity and scent of jasmine (seriously, is there a more fragrant song in the history of pop?), “Summer Breeze” should sound like “Daydream” or “Good Day Sunshine”: laid-back, idyllic, lazily contemplative. But instead the tune is moody, heavy, even somber, particularly the bridge melody (“sweet days of summer” etc) that provides the main instrumental hook. You (OK, I) expect some kind of ironic layering within the lyric to suggest that this seemingly idyllic scene is anything but, that the cozy domesticity we see is a mask for some kind of submerged conflict. But the lyric doesn’t support that at all: it’s a straightforward expression of contentment couched in a tune that’s really kind of a downer.
Dw. Dunphy – I used to always mistake “jasmine” for “chasm” and, I have to tell you, my mind has more chasms than jasmine for sure.
I kid, mock, laugh at, grimmace over and generally complain about Seals & Crofts, but you just can’t get past the notion they’ve produced effective soft pop that has endured. In the right frame of mind, it’s the soundtrack of an actual summer day. In the wrong frame of mind, they epitomize everything that was wrong about the too-soft, too-mellow, too-jellified ’70s pop.
This particular song is a perfect illustration of this. The opening musical phrase is an earworm unto itself, and probably my favorite part of the song. The chorus has that same sense of stickiness but can annoy a little bit, especially when the harmonies overreach from sweet to cloying. Then you have the bridge with its little horn burst, which does little to nothing for me but goes away quickly.
So depending on how generous your mood is or is not, you gravitate to the pieces that suit your demeanor. All this simply means that it is an inextricable part of the music of those times, both in its best and worst senses.
Jon Cummings – Dan, are you sure you’re listening to your 45 at the proper speed? Moody? Heavy? Somber? I don’t hear any of it. What I hear (in both the music and the lyrics) is an idyllic vision of my childhood hometown — anybody’s hometown, really, unless you spent your Summers in the City — on one of those summer days that’s surprisingly not too stifling. This song puts me in a very specific (and very happy) time and place, and I’ll always love it for that. Now, if anybody wants to discuss how bizarro the duo’s Baha’i faith is…
Dunphy – Uh, hell yeah! I have never heard anything about this.
Holmes – A lot of S&C’s lyrics reflect their faith, and shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision they released an album called Unborn Child. The title track was written from the perspective of a fetus. Needless to say, it almost killed their career.
Feerick – Just had a peek at their Wikipedia page — apparently Jim and Dash’s daughters have been performing together under the name “Seals and Crofts.” It’s the Beatles Pt 2 all over again!
David Lifton – I get what Dan is saying about the moodiness. It’s mostly in the chord progression. Both the verse and chorus start on minor chords. And then, after the bridge, it seems to pick up a bit in tempo.
By the way, y’all ever hear the Isley Brothers version?
#18: Billy Paul, “Me and Mrs. Jones” – #1 U.S., #12 U.K.
Feerick – I can’t decide if this “classic” is hilariously bad, or just hilarious. The cod-jazz flourishes, the sax like a duck call, the instrumental bed with all the polish and subtlety of a porn soundtrack, Paul’s ridiculously mannered vocal; shurely, ye cannae be serious.
Dunphy – Hate the subject, not the song, playa. The subject of the song likely deserves a beatdown or, at the slightest, a boot in the babymaker, but this is a smooth song. I can picture a wide swath of America singing along and grooving to this track, and ashamed all at the same time because it is about a man screwing around with a married woman.
Jon Cummings – When you start with such a blatant grammatical error, you’re gonna have a tough time with me. This tune has a superb, Stylistics-type intro, and a smooth first verse — but as soon as Billy launches into that first “Meeee-yeeee-yeeee-yeeeee AA-and Missus, Missus Jones” with that horrifyingly mannered vocal I always hear as a blatant ripoff of Satchmo, I tune the rest out. I suppose that, as cheating songs go, this one’s more soulful than “Secret Lovers,” but any cheatin’ song needs to have more negative consequence built in than “We can’t afford to get our hopes up too high.” So you can keep this, and instead give me “Kiss and Say Goodbye.”
Lifton – I usually don’t care about the story behind the song, but I’ve always loved that Gamble and Huff wrote this after watching a couple in the place where they used to have lunch every day. Once, maybe twice a week, they’d see a couple that displayed all the signs of sneakin’ around (dimly lit booth, arriving and leaving separately, etc.). Maybe Paul oversells the title, but it’s still a great song.
#19: Mac Davis, “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” – #1 U.S., #26 U.S. Hot Country.
Feerick – Davis was smart enough to mock his own image as a womanizing egomaniac with “It’s Hard To be Humble.” It is with songs like this that he earned that reputation — and earned, too, my undying hate. That little tremble in his voice, as he warns his “hot-blooded woman-child” (ew!) — for her own good, of course — that she’d best accept that he’s a superficial asshole; man, that’s insufferable.
Dunphy – Mac Davis, to my utter amazement, has a reputation as a heck of a guitar slinger. Most of us only knew him as Burt Reynolds’ sideman in Hal Needham flicks and his handful of hits. This song, while quickly ingratiating to the mind, suffers the same fate as “Me And Mrs. Jones” in that the main ‘character’ comes off as a total a-hole not worthy of having a song with which one should sing along with. But sing along you do because these are professional songs by professional songwriters who know how to mix those hooks with some truly unworthy sentiments.
Cummings – Here’s a point of demarcation for me. “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” is the first song I distinctly remember hearing coming out of a jukebox, while swimming at the town pool in Cookeville, Tennessee, during that summer of ’72. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t generally appalled by its message, even as a 6-year-old — though you gotta admit that chorus is catchy, especially with that embedded guitar riff that sounded like it came off an Elvis single of the period (several of which Davis wrote). Good ol’ Mac is the subject of two of my favorite early-music-fandom memories. First, he headlined the first concert I ever attended, in Nashville in early ’73 — my parents dragged my brother and me along because they wanted to hear the opening act, Helen Reddy. Unfortunately, nobody ELSE was there to hear Ms. “I Am Woman,” and two jackasses sitting in front of us spent her set cracking wise about Helen and feminism in general. Finally, Helen said, “Now I’m going to sing a song called ‘Time,'” and one of the jackasses asked the other, “What time is it, anyway?” And my mom leaned forward and hissed, “It’s time for you two to shut the fuck up!” The second story is about how I melted my 45 of “Rhinestone Cowboy” after hearing that Glen Campbell had stolen Mac’s wife. (Judgmental little fucker, wasn’t I?) I told the long version of that story in my immortal Vinyl Record Day ’08 column, “Five Ways to Trash a Precious Platter.”
Dunphy – Another point of discussion here — in the 1970s, more people knew about county acts for their extraneous activities than their musical ones. Mac Davis, goofy buddy of Burt in movies. Roy Clark, that large fella from Hee Haw. Dolly Parton prior to the 1980s when her pop starpower was equal to her movie aspirations was all teeth & boobs & hi y’all are. I don’t think anyone could have directly named a Parton song during that decade (aside from the hardcore country fans) but everyone had an inkling of who Parton was.
If anything, while we believe that celebrity has trumped the celebrity’s product now, we know about the product. Whatever you might think of Rihanna, you have heard “Umbrella.” Whatever pop star has crossed over into other spheres of recognition, you know a song they’ve done. About the only instance in recent memory that remotely contradicts this is Lana Del Rey, who is known for the controversies surrounding her fame, but most would be hard pressed to know one of her songs off the bat.
Doesn’t make Mac Davis any better, but it it handily qualifies him as a product of his times.
Feerick – Oh, it still happens. I’ve never knowingly heard a song by either the Libertines or Babyshambles, but I recognize Pete Doherty on sight.
Cummings – You’re forgetting about the huge impact of TV variety shows (and the fact that Dolly was all over them throughout the decade). So not only did folks know who she was (and who THEY were, if you know what I’m sayin’, and I think you know what I’m sayin’), they were pretty familiar with songs like “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors” even though they weren’t big pop hits. A better example might be Tammy Wynette, who (apart from “Stand By Your Man”) was not a real musical presence outside the country market, but whose stormy relationship with George Jones was always all over the gossip rags. I’ll grant you that Roy Clark was attached at the hip to “Hee Haw,” which kept city-dwellers covering their ears and trying not to listen to his music — but did he have a personality apart from that shit-eating grin?
Lifton – There’s a story Peter Guralnick told in the second volume of his Elvis biography. When Col. Tom met Mac Davis, he said something like, “You’re a good-looking boy. You’re gonna be a star. Want me to rub your head for luck?” Davis wasn’t sure if he was serious, but he said OK. So Col. Tom put his hands on his head and gave him his blessing and said, “Now tell everybody you meet in this business that I touched your head.” So yeah, that’s how it’s done.
Doesn’t make me like this song at all, but it’s a great story, as is Jon’s. Did the concert promoter even look at the the hits of both artists to see if there would be a conflict? “Yeah, let’s have that woman’s lib chick open up for the guy who says he only uses women for sex.”
Cummings – Actually, Dave — and I didn’t know this until I happened upon the information just now — the connection between Mac and Helen was that Helen recorded Mac’s song “I Believe in Music” in ’71 as her first single for Capitol, but when it flopped DJs turned the record over and made her version of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” her first Top 40 hit. So there’s another piece of useless information to crowd out the important stuff in your head.
Lifton – I’ve already forgotten it.
Cummings – No fair. It’s permanently lodged in my brain now — and I think I’ve forgotten my wife’s birthday.
Lifton – It’s September 18.
#20: Nilsson, “Without You” – #1 U.S. and U.K., 1973 Grammy Award winner for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
Feerick – This is so splendidly miserable that it comes right up against the edge of parody, and it’s a tribute to Harry’s genius that it doesn’t crash and burn entirely, It’s a near thing, though. Uncomfortably so.
Cummings – This song achieves everything that “Alone Again, Naturally” (and every sadsack ballad ever, for that matter) doesn’t. Schmillson gives the vocal just the right amount of sob, and the arrangement has a hyper-emotive quality that Badfinger’s original sorely lacked. If you ask me, the opening “Can’t live” of the last chorus, at the 2:11 mark, is one of the great moments in pop history — in large part because you can hear all the work Nilsson had to do to reach that note (as opposed to the ease with which Mariah Carey pulled it off, which ruins the whole thing). Simply put, “Without You” is a brilliantly crafted pop single — the kind that one can easily imagine would force Ringo to say, “Bollocks, I’m recording with Richard Perry, too.”
Dunphy – I would like to think that Nilsson understood the operatic nature of this song, and the underlying belief that a lot of people might have already been aware of the original Badfinger version may have goaded him to go for broke. Whatever was the case, this is a textbook example of attacking the rulebook with spite and making it work in your favor. There is nothing “right” about this version. It throws in almost every pop-ballad gimmick, stacks them one on another like a layer cake, and frosts the whole darn thing with one of the most melodramatic deliveries this side of “MacArthur Park.”
But it works. You’d have to be way more curmudgeonly than me to deny that. I second Jon’s opinion that the key to it all is Nilsson working really, really hard to get to that peak. There is stress and strain occurring. There is a sense that his emotional state has given him Hulk-like strength to emote, but it is a slow build. Mariah Carey’s version, more likely due to her already proven ability to go big, and then go bigger, doesn’t shock anyone and doesn’t plant that flag on the mountain like Nilsson’s version does, mostly because you’re waiting for her to go nuts vocally. It shows off her range, but doesn’t mean anything. It’s a surprise birthday party you already knew was going down.
Meantime, in his despair, dear Harry has torn that cake apart with his bare hands. It’s what everyone tells you not to do, but he did it exceedingly well.
Lifton – Talk about oversinging a chorus. It is a little overly dramatic, even thought Nilsson voice is incredible. I go back and forth over whether I prefer this of the Badfinger version. There’s something about the original that’s very sweet.
#21: The Moody Blues, “Nights in White Satin” – #2 U.S., #9 U.K.; a re-release of the 1967 single.
Feerick – Playground gossip had it that this record was somehow secretly super-dirty, and we all nodded knowingly even as we had no idea precisely how. These days, I’m sure the Urban Dictionary has a definition for a “Nights in White Satin,” but I haven’t the stomach to look it up.
(EDIT AFTER THE FACT: There isn’t one, yet — but the Internet being what it is, I’m sure there will be within six hours after this article goes live.)
What’s undeniable is that it’s a strange-sounding record — melodramatic, but mixed without a lot of punch. It’s all float and no sting. The guitar and drums are ghostly, overwhelmed by the strings and Mellotron and the banshee wail of the backing vocals. Even without the full closing orchestral outro and the “Lament” section (which I miss terribly in this single mix: Breathe deep the gathering gloom, and all that) it’s still a damned odd little song, and slightly unnerving. Sinister, even. No wonder the kids thought it was crypto-pornographic.
Cummings – I feel I don’t have the vocabulary I want to have to discuss this single’s orchestral components, so I’ll just muddle through it. Fabulous Mellotron and string arrangement; horrid backing vocals that nearly ruin the whole thing for me. Love the juxtaposition of drums and flute during that solo — I never think of this song when thinking of great R&R flute solos, but it’s certainly up there. I’m with Jack on never wanting to hear the song in less than the full album version. Sure, this is exactly the kind of pompous, overdone shit that the Sex Pistols rebelled against — but it’s certainly compelling, isn’t it?
Dunphy – I love this song, even the backup vocals which give it an unearthly, supernatural quality. It’s not a moan but a wail, and while it could easily be mistaken for a tune about the throes of passion, it always sounded to me like a song about unrequited, even lost and denied, love. Plus, there wasn’t really anything that equaled it in pop music, not on its original release nor during this reissue.
And let’s think about that one for a moment. How many artists or record companies, for that matter, are so confident and invested in a song that they would bother to re-release. How many radio stations have the man-power or inclination to go back and play a song that was not a hit, essentially raising the dead again on merit alone? Oh, I know there are probably a lot of radio people that might like to (I’m looking at Ted Asregadoo and Matt Wardlaw here — maybe they’ll chime in with their thoughts on this subject?) but the infrastructure just doesn’t allow it.
A slight tangent: UB40’s “Red Red Wine” was not a single that I know of. The Neil Diamond cover was an album track, but a radio station just decided, “Hey, this is a hooky piece of work, and not many people know the original anyhow.” They played it, it pulled an audience, the label (A&M Records) noticed and released it officially and, I believe, it has become the band’s most-identified track. According to Paul McCartney, the same thing happened with “Jet” from Band on the Run. McCartney picked “Helen Wheels” as the single, but it floundered. Local radio started doing edits of “Jet,” playing them, and getting positive response. With some label wrangling, Capitol got an official single edit for the track, the thing became a big hit, everyone winds up looking like geniuses.
So the pure exotic lushness of “Nights In White Satin” might not scream “I hear a single” to a label guy, but someone heard something in there and gave it a shot. The shot paid off. This can never happen now.
Lifton – Even though I had a prog phase, I could never get into this song. It’s too dull. I’d rather listen to “Question” or “Tuesday Afternoon.”