Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 45
It’s AM Gold: 1973! Get comfortable, folks, because we’re feeling analytical this week.
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#1: Helen Reddy, “Delta Dawn” – #1 U.S. Hot 100 and Easy Listening; knocked Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” out of the top Hot 100 spot for one week.
Jack Feerick – Didn’t there used to be a couple of more verses to this? Wasn’t there a whole vaguely Faulknerian narrative to it? In this version, it’s been stripped down to nothing but the highlights — the huge chorus, a couple of key changes, not one but two a cappella breakdowns, and more drum fills and horn kicks than most bands manage in a whole album. It’s a ruthlessly efficient thrill machine. But still: Wasn’t this supposed to be a song that told a story?
Dw. Dunphy – Jack, you probably are thinking of Tanya Tucker’s original version, not Helen Reddy’s cover.
David Lifton – Even though I would later learn to appreciate country (even the slick, popular crap because of the quality of the production and performances), this was one of the songs I heard at a very young age that made me hate it all.
Jon Cummings – So, we’re in story-song heaven (or hell) this week, which pretty much sums up 1973 (and the early part of the ’70s in general, for pop fans). You guys so far aren’t being too kind to poor “Delta Dawn,” but my affection for it exists on several levels. For one thing, while it’s really only half-formed as a story-song (no, Jack, there’s no more to it than this, in Tanya Tucker’s version or anywhere else), it does have one of the greatest opening lines of any pop song ever: “She’s 41 and her daddy still calls her ‘baby.'” It’s a line worthy of Tennessee Williams — even if the rest of the lyric falls far short of that. For another thing, its progress from composition to two smash singles is one of those great old song-plugger stories that don’t happen anymore (not outside Nashville, at least) — see Wikipedia for the song’s lineage from Tracy Nelson to Bette Midler to Tucker to being rejected by Barbra Streisand, and finally to Reddy.
Then there’s my personal connection to Reddy, discussed in depth in last week’s column — she popped my cherry, pop-concert wise, when my parents took me to see her in Nashville. Also, her Greatest Hits album from ’75 was one of the few rock-era pop records in my dad’s collection — he was a huge jazz fan — and so it was (along with Sgt. Pepper, Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme and a couple others I can’t recall) one of the targets of my early raids on his LPs, before I started buying in bulk myself. Even back then, while I liked a lot of Reddy’s singles, I would listen to that GH record as a 10-year-old and think that Reddy seemingly had no idea what kind of singer she wanted to be, apart from a successful one. To go from the success she had with the Broadway ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the feminist anthem “I Am Woman” and the very classy “Peaceful” (my favorite of her singles) — three songs upon which you might think a female singer would want to build a thematic structure for her career — to the countryfied “Delta Dawn” and its similarly anti-feminist (but sorta vaudevillian) follow-up, “Ruby Red Dress,” within a year … it’s practically whiplash-inducing.
But beyond Helen’s career and the specifics of “Delta Dawn,” I want to introduce a concept that the first three of our entrants this week all bring to mind — and that is my theory that the early-’70s trend toward story songs, cheesy and awful though they often were, represents the inevitable commodification of the early-’60s Folk Revival and, indeed, a high-water mark (in terms of listeners reached, if not quality) for the merging of recorded folk and pop music. Without taking all of this to a ridiculous level of bullshit abstraction … or maybe it’s already too late … I first thought about this concept during grad school when, in a folklore class that influenced me greatly, I was assigned to read Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and John Berger’s classic book Ways of Seeing. Both of those authors make the argument that our contemporary mass-reproduction of artworks — from records/cassettes/CDs/
I’ll stop now.
Dunphy – Jon, I’ll buy that rationale and add that there was an element of “somebody else’s life” that played into it. Where there was so much belief in the Sixties that “We can change the world and, in fact, we are,” the story-songs seem to me a digression that indicated a generation that was feeling kind of burned. By moving on to someone else’s story they could momentarily not think of their own, and how it went so far from the plan…
Cummings – Dw., I think your idea about ’70s listeners escaping their disappointments through story songs is worth considering, the same way that films and TV offer escape — though I’d suggest that the folks who were making hits out of “Delta Dawn” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” (and particularly “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” and “The Night Chicago Died,” which I’m sure we’ll be discussing at some point) were not the same folks who built their ’60s lives around hopes that were snuffed out by Nixon/Cambodia/Kent State/Watergate/etc. Besides that, you’re flying in the face of 35 years of conventional wisdom/ oversimplification that ’70s culture was all about retreating INTO oneself after the expansive focus of the ’60s — the “Me Decade” and all that.
Dan Wiencek – Is a deep sociological reason really required here? I have a simpler theory: that innovative songwriters of the ’60s, led by Bob Dylan, began to expand the parameters of the popular song lyric in many ways, whether in terms of narrative (i.e., “story songs”), political focus, allegorical/metaphoric imagery or some combination of all three. The result was that audiences gradually became accustomed to, and even came to expect, lyrics that went beyond the conventional romantic themes that had characterized most popular songs in the years prior. (Not that the latter ever went away, of course, or ever will.) So-called story songs — a problematic category if ever there was one — would then just be considered one outgrowth of a generational shift in what audiences expected from pop lyrics.
Chris Holmes – So can we blame Bob Dylan for “American Pie” then?
Wiencek – I blame Buddy Holly.
Lifton – I blame Mike Love.
Dunphy – I blame it on the Bossa Nova. Cuchi cuchi.
I think everyone has a point as far as that goes. From my perspective I’m saying that generational culture swings often from “us” to “them” and back, usually as a reaction to the political headwinds. When the audience is most worried about the realities of their lives, they find comfort in the stories of others, sometimes reflecting their situations and sometimes not. When the politics and social situations are relatively stable, the focus shifts to “me and my life” in so far as the singer is involved.
I base my opinion on nothing though, so my guess is as good or bad as any. All I know is that in the 1960s Pink Floyd looked to space and the weird colors. In the 70s and early 80s they looked to Syd Barrett falling apart, and to each other with contempt. The lesson: never base your sociological argument on the output of Pink Floyd.
Wiencek – Perhaps I should abandon that monograph I’ve been working on, “And Everything Was Green and Submarine: The Fall of the New Left and the Rise of the Silent Majority as Seen Through the Lyrics of Roger Waters.”
Cummings – You’d be better off with “as seen through the lyrics of David Gates.”
#2: Jim Croce, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” – #1 U.S.
Feerick – It’s not that I don’t have any time for Jim Croce — I remain fond of “I Got a Name,” for instance — but to follow up “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” with something so much in the same vein seems less like evidence of an artistic fascination with the American outlaw idiom, and more like a trip back to the well.
Dunphy – I’ve been trying to figure out why Croce’s first couple of hits were so similar, and for that matter why these stories of bad guys seemed to be so desirable in the early 1970’s. My best guess was that it was a reactionary thing, that after so many years of peace and love and flower power, some artists craved indulgence in the inverse. That might explain why Croce had “Jim” and “Leroy Brown,” Emerson Lake & Palmer had “Benny The Bouncer” and so many others spanned the territories once trod by the likes of Stagger Lee.
Does that make “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown” better or worse. Hard to say. It is a rollicking song that, out of it’s own context is just an easy example of piano blues-pop. It might be hard to love the song but it is not hard to like it, or to sing along with it which is its primary asset.
In the bigger scheme of Croce’s work, it comes off as more mechanical. Well that worked from the last song, that was a hit, so let’s do that again and we should have another hit. If that is the case, he was right, as I think “Leroy Brown” has become the song most people associate first with Croce (followed by “I’ve Got A Name” and “Time In A Bottle”). Short term gains however show some of the artifice of the song, which is a problem but not so much a problem as most of the music that came from the 50s and 60s. Artists found a niche and stayed there, or else their writing/production associates put them there. Example: The Drifters have three songs closely associated with them, and all three are about places to make out at: “Under The Boardwalk,” “Saturday Night At The Movies,” and “Up On The Roof.” All three sound similar, have similar subjects, and all three were hits. This stuff is formulaic, but the formula often proves true.
With that in mind, it is only in hindsight that I can get fidgety with Croce’s musical doppelgangers. He traded in pop traditions more than one cares to admit.
Lifton – One of those that was fun to sing as a kid, and there still things to like in it as an adult, such as the acoustic lead underneath the vocal. But if you were blasting this in your car with the windows down you’d be pretty damn embarrassed. Still, a song about a badass caught up in a love triangle that ends up in a bar killing. Does that mean we can blame Jim for “Copacabana?”
Cummings – This track’s enormous popularity takes it, for me, outside the realm of discussing it in terms of Croce’s career arc. Yes, it’s of a piece with “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” but as I noted when we talked about that song a few weeks ago, “Leroy Brown” certainly is a refinement of that blue-collar-bar-fight ethos. And Croce certainly came by that ethos honestly, having grown up in South Philly and then having spent a spell driving a truck and working construction when he got fed up with the music biz in the late ’60s.
#3: Dawn feat. Tony Orlando, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” – #1 U.S. and U.K.; best-selling U.K. single in 1973.
Feerick – Man, there’s a lot of story-songs this week, aren’t there?
It’s determinedly old-timey sounding, complete with faux tap-dancing sounds in the background. None of it would sound out of place on the Lawrence Welk show — except for Tony’s vocals, which falter on the high notes as Bing Crosby’s never would.
Say, what do you reckon ol’ Tony O was in for, anyway?
Cummings – Considering all the varying ethnicities in play when it came to Tony, Telma & Joyce, I’d guess it was a Mann Act violation.
Dunphy – I was picturing counterfeiting, myself.
Lifton – Various musical crimes, Jack.
Dunphy – Harmless fluff that near a decade on would be reduced to a national assignment, and two decades on would be as shallow and meaningless as any overblown symbolism. Forty years on and this sentimental trifle winds up as part of a collection that includes Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.” and fatuous soundbites like “freedom isn’t free.”
Cummings – Returning to my earlier ramble — and riffing off Jack’s note that the track sounds like it emerged from the music-hall tradition — it’s worth noting how this song, and single, bring together (and dumb down for mass consumption) a bunch of disparate musical and folk styles. The lyric is straight out of the folkloric tradition — yellow ribbons having been a traditional sign of fidelity between separated lovers, and the New York Post editor Pete Hamill having written (or adapted from oral tradition) a story called “Going Home,” which was turned into a TV movie in ’72, about an ex-con waiting to see a yellow hankie on a tree in his hometown.
All of which makes “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” the corn-pone midpoint of a legacy that has resulted in millions of 21st-century Americans believing that slapping yellow-ribbon magnets on their cars represents a significant-enough contribution to the (endless) war effort. It’s as though George Bush followed up his post-9/11 “go do some shopping, or the terrorists win” spiel by telling us, “I’m putting our volunteer army into two wars while lowering taxes on the wealthy. But if you’ll put a yellow ribbon on your car, our enemies will know we mean business.” Sadly, I’ve come to view yellow ribbons with skepticism verging on disgust — though not quite to the level of revulsion I used to feel at those t-shirts and bumper stickers that read, “I SUPPORT PRESIDENT BUSH … and our troops.”
I’ll stop now.
#4: Three Dog Night, “Shambala” – #3 U.S.
Feerick – My renewed exposure to Three Dog Night in this series isn’t really changing my opinion about the group, sadly. I mean, I like the way it sounds — the semi-distorted electric piano (or is it a clavinet?) growling away, the big harmonies at the bridge, the tasty volume-swell guitar solos — but in the end, the best I can say is that it’s perfectly listenable. No less, but sadly no more.
Chris Holmes – For me, this is the only song in the bunch that I would listen to on purpose again. It’s certainly got the most teeth out of anything here. I’ve got the Three Dog Night greatest hits collection and am usually not disappointed when something pops up on shuffle, but I wouldn’t ever sit and listen all the way through.
Dunphy – These guys sure did have a thing for faux spiritualism, didn’t they? “Shambala” is more exotic than “Joy To The World” however, and the whole thing rests on the meaningless chant-style portions “Ah-wooo-ooo, hey, yeah, yeah” bits.
It’s not to say I dislike Three Dog Night, although my previous things about them in other AM Gold columns would lead someone to believe that. The truth is there just isn’t so much to get passionate about when it comes to this band, and this song is no different. I can’t imagine it was much different in their times either. They had fans, and their record sales proved that to be true, but I can’t believe they were of the die-hard, t-shirt wearing, camping-out-for-concert-
And that kinda sums up my feelings about Three Dog Night. They’re only so good until something better comes along.
A side note here: Three Dog Night, Jim Croce, The Grass Roots, and future AM Gold subjects Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods, Steely Dan, and Stephen Bishop were all on the ABC Records label (sometimes ABC Dunhill). Most of these names have a common sound about them, so my beliefs that there was a bit of label machinery involved with their output might not be too far off the mark.
Lifton – Remember that TV show Wings? It wasn’t a great show, but it was enjoyable and inoffensive with a solid ensemble cast. It worked best for NBC as the 8:30 show, something to have on in the background after Friends and before Seinfeld. Three Dog Night is the Wings of the early ’70s.
Dunphy, there’s a reason why a lot of the ABC/Dunhill stuff has a similar sound. Gary Katz was a staff producer at the label in the early-70s. At the time, they also had a young songwriting team hired to supply material, but very little of it was recorded because the songs were too weird and complex for the Grass Roots and Three Dog Night. But Katz got what they were doing and felt it would be more productive to let the songwriters record their own work. Thus began the career of Steely Dan.
Cummings – As an ode to hippie nirvana, “Shambala” seems kinda late to the party, doesn’t it? I’m pretty sure Jerry Rubin was already thinking about putting on a suit by this point, the whole NYC-radicalism thing having faded with Nixon’s re-election. In that sense, “Shambala” reminds me (in theme, not style) of John Lennon’s Mind Games album from ’73, which seemed stuck in a post-Woodstock wheel-spinning whose idealism and slogans (“Make love, not war” and all that) had petered out with McGovern’s electoral slaughter, if not after Kent State two years before. All of that said, “Shambala” has a fantastic groove, and I’m never unhappy to hear it (and trill along, horribly, in the car with the windows up). As I’ve noted before, and as I said about Helen Reddy above, Three Dog Night seemed to have no sense of who they were as a band — but whichever momentary version of the band made “Shambala” was a good one.
#5: Dobie Gray, “Drift Away” – #5 U.S.; the second of Gray’s two Top 10 American singles.
Feerick – To borrow a word from Lifton: Holy.
Dunphy – There are artists who work a career to get something near as good as this. There may be mechanical moments in here, but I can’t hear them at all. It is perfect, seamless soul that has been attempted replication more times than I care to think about, and none come close.
Paging Matthew Bolin: It’s probably worth mentioning that “Drift Away” via Dobie Gray is, in itself, a cover. Nonetheless, he made his version the primary version.
Lifton – In other hands, this wouldn’t have worked. I’m kind of wary rock songs about rock music that were written after, say, 1964. Yes, I’m including Billy Joel in there, and Huey Lewis (fuck you, Giles!). In the Playback box set, Tom Petty laughed at how their first two albums had songs with “rock n’ roll” in the title, as they felt it needed to be saved. That’s kind of how I feel about this “Drift Away.” But at the same time, it’s done so beautifully that I don’t care.
Cummings – Please DON’T page Matthew, actually, because if we do we might hear from some poor sap who thought that Uncle fucking Kracker’s version of “Drift Away” was the original. Let’s page Michael Bolton, instead, and have a conversation about soul songs that didn’t need covering at all, and why all proceeds from such endeavors should be donated to that organization that helps ancient blues musicians get hip replacements, or whatever. (I know Dobie sings the last verse of UK’s cover — and I hope, for the sake of UK’s mortal soul, that Dobie got paid considerably more than scale for doing so.)
For me, “Drift Away” is a perfect way to spend three minutes, and always will be. I don’t even want to try to put my love for it into words — but it’s one of my earliest radio memories, and hearing it brings to mind all sorts of great images of my life when I was 7 years old. Instead of attempting to parse its greatness, I’ll just offer a shout-out to the great Nashville session guitarist Reggie Young, who’s responsible for millions of us spending our early childhoods singing, “Bowr-bup-bup-bup-bup-BUP-bup-