Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 46
As we float like a mellow breeze into the second installment of AM: Gold 1973, we leave behind the deep analyses of the story-song and just enjoy some great tunes.
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#6: Al Green, “Call Me (Come Back Home)” – #10 U.S.
Jack Feerick – This is one of those songs I just can’t get a handle on. The chord progression never goes where I’m expecting, and the melody line is on some path I cannot predict.
You know how the greatest songs always sound inevitable? Like, their craft is invisible until you start examining them — they sound like found objects, perfectly-formed from the start; but “Call Me” doesn’t sound like that. It sounds like a bunch of session cats reading some changes off sheets of paper. Five minutes from now they’ll be playing something different, and they won’t remember the track they just laid down. And neither will I.
Jon Cummings - The album that share’s this song’s title is generally considered Al’s best — not to mention one of the great all-time soul albums (or pop albums in any subgenre). It’s the album on which he showed that his now-iconic sound was rooted in country (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Funny How Time Slips Away”) as well as gospel and R&B. “Call Me” certainly is more gospel-inflected, and therefore was a natural fit for his base audience. But is it just me, or did whoever was pulling singles off the album save the best for last? First came “You Ought to Be with Me,” which has a nice, sorta-like-”Let’s Stay Together” vibe, and then came “Call Me,” which (I agree with Jack) is relatively soul-by-numbers. But then came “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” which is one of those tracks that brings together everything that was so great about Al’s run of hits — the phrasing, the vamping, the horn section, the drama, the sheer groove of the whole thing.
Dw. Dunphy - I can’t be mad at any Al Green song and, yes, while the chord structure is incongruous to standard R&B progressions, I’m the prog nerd and can handle it better than most. And Al is just so smooth; how in the world could you resist him? One of my big concert-going regrets is that I have not yet seen the man live (and likely never will). I don’t care if it’;s a regular big-tent revival either, just get me there. I think that summons up how I feel about this track, and that my biases preclude me from any objectivity.
David Lifton - Is Teenie Hodges the most underrated guitarist ever? With Al Green so much attention is paid to his voice or Al Jackson, Jr.’s drumming that Hodges is overlooked. But that tone and those hammers-on were as essential to the intimacy and sexiness of Hi’s output as anything else. His work on this song makes the track.
Matthew Bolin - Again, like “I’m Still in Love With You”, I find this track to be pleasant, and utterly listenable because of the Reverend’s fantastic vocal stylings and the Willie Mitchell production, but there’s just something about it that seems kinda “off” to me. I don’t know if it’s the dissonance inherent in some of the chords and the chord progression being too, well, subtle at times for my taste. Also, there’s no hard cutoff between the verse, the chorus (or rather, the repetition of the title), and any links between them. I don’t know if that’s really such a great thing. I understand that 70s soul moved often towards a focus on more groove-oriented recordings, but I tend to find the best soul music being more straight forward in its design and chord progressions. But maybe more than anything that “gets to me” about this tune it’s the fact that at times it sounds like Green and the background singers are trying to hypnotize the object of this song into giving in to the ways of Al–it’s actually a tiny bit creepy how his vocals change from basically the center of the mix to far left for the words “Come to me”. Still having said all that, I will not deny its overall loveliness.
#7: James Taylor, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” – #14 U.S.
Feerick - For all that I generally like JT, he’s at his best when he’s in sophisto-pop mode. Like a lot of singer-songwriters, though, he fancies himself a bluesman. And even when he’s not embarrassing himself (and me) with growly tough-guy tripe like “Steamroller Blues,” he’s gunking up his pop tunes with sho’nuffs and yeah babys. Factor in the slightly icky sentiment of the song — Do me wrong or do me right, but for Christ’s sake do me — and you’ve got my teeth on edge. It’s a pretty tune and all, with some nice jazzy changes and sweet minimalist groove, but I just can’t get past the “ugh” response.
Cummings - Like most of James’ stuff, this is thoroughly competent and tuneful, and a lot of the women love it, so the men wind up grooving along as well, sometimes against our better judgment. But even as I appreciate James in the abstract, every time I hear all but a few of his songs on the radio I’m underwhelmed. Am I the only one who feels that, apart from a couple of singles like “Handy Man” and “Her Town Too,” it’s all been downhill since “Sweet Baby James”?
Dunphy - One of two songs this week that are devoted to the topic “I need sex, so deliver, girl,” only this one is a lot more blunt about it than the other (which we’ll discuss in a couple ticks). Top-of-the-head impressions include this subject matter is far too freaky for James’ folk-rock style. This song needed to flow in a way that might indicate the proposed femme might actually be inclined to give in. There has to be sex in the voice, not just in what the voice is saying. James could have been singing about milking cows for all the passion he thinks he’s putting out there.
More than that, because he sings it like a math teacher and not a lothario, the ickiness comes just shy of insinuating the proposed femme has actually stumbled into a situation she never wanted to be in — not nearly date-rape, but maybe a blind date gone really badly. She’ll get to leave that apartment untouched, but she’ll probably be mocking that guy for months afterward.
Long story short — “He took..it out.”
Lifton – The sexist streak of the singer-songwriter movement was probably its least appealing trait. They were every bit as transparent as metal guys in what they felt women were good for, and that this was taking place during the Sexual Revolution justified it in their eyes. I also think it undercut their more introspective and political songs. How could you take Jackson Browne’s views on nuclear proliferation or Central America seriously after hearing “Redneck Friend?” It’s as if they’re saying, “Let’s stop all war, but first, a blowjob!”
But still, Michael Brecker on sax, y’all.
Hey, Nancy Wilson covered this!
Bolin - I agree with Lifton here, but should warn him that bringing up the name of Jackson Browne in vain, based upon my experience writing a previous article on this site, may only doom him for a swarm of middle-aged female fans to invade the comments section calling you names defending the reputation of the sex god of Laurel Canyon. But, hey, it’s true: between Taylor, Browne, and various Eagles, there was a heck of a lot of misogynistic songs being written, and a good number of fans who were either clueless or didn’t care because the guys singing this stuff had well defined cheekbones, hair the swooped up like the wings of a bird, and appeared to be “sensitive”. That said, this Taylor song actually seems to be as self-loathing as anything else, which may put it in the rare category of the misanthropic love song. More than that though, it’s generally boring, which makes it a far, far cry from the touching, emotionally complex, and generally tuneful “Fire in Rain”, which seems like it should have come a lifetime before this week’s pick, not just a couple of years; so Jon, I pretty much agree with you: Taylor seemed to peak real early and then for the most part slid downhill real quick-like. I feel he’s had a few good singles since then (his reinterpretation of “Handyman” is the definitive version of the song in my opinion), and overall the JT album towards the end of 70s was pretty strong (in part because it includes “Handyman”), but for the most part I’ve found his career underwhelming. The combination of his influence, the classic work he has done, and his extremely underrated acoustic guitar skills mean that I still think his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was worthy, put if we were to rank the HoF by tiers, I think I’d probably put him a lot lower down than a lot of other people. Oh well, at least he wasn’t the worst of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2000 (*cough*Lovin’ Spoonful*cough*), so he’s got that going for him.
#8: Aretha Franklin, “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” – #3 U.S., #26 U.K.
Feerick - That mellow rolling-and-tumbling groove, the subtle synth, the persona simultaneously tough and lovelorn: Swap out the flute for a slide guitar, and this song becomes the template for Bonnie Raitt’s whole career.
Cummings - I adore this recording all out of proportion to its importance … but I could listen to it all day. The breeziness of Aretha’s vocal, that flute, the sentiment of the song – “I’m gonna rap on your door, tap on your windowpane” is one of my all-time favorite lines. Somehow, when I was becoming a hopeless-romantic teenager, this record came to represent everything I hoped a girl would feel for me someday. And I’m not afraid to admit that when Katharine McPhee sang it (brilliantly) on “American Idol,” I became one of those pervy, generation-too-old cranks who developed an unseemly crush on her. When’s the next episode of Smash on?
Dunphy - So sweet. Aretha is most regarded as a belter, but she could coo with the best of them too, and this is a certified example of that, even if the lyrics are a tad creepy when divorced from the loveliness of the delivery. “I’m gonna rap on your door, tap on your windowpane,” while not as overt as “Every breath you take, every move you make…I’ll be watching you,” but that lingering sense of desperate obsession still is a thread of the tune. Luckily it was done by Aretha who spackles over the holes with perfect efficiency. It would have been creepier from others.
Lifton – One of the few times two giants created something worthy of both their legacies. I had forgotten about this song for years while I concentrated on the earlier Atlantic work. But in 2005 I saw her in concert and she did this one and brought it back into my head. I remember she prefaced it by saying, “Stevie Wonder called me up and said, ‘Ree, I got a song for you.’ I said, ‘OK.” You don’t even need to be told it’s by Stevie to know that it’s him. His trademarks are all over this – the opening chord progression echoes “Ma Cherie Amour” and the way the title is phrased are but two examples.
Great point about Bonnie Raitt, Jack. I hadn’t made that connection, but it’s there. I’d love to hear her give this one a shot.
Bolin - This is the perfect time of year to reintroduce this song to ourselves and our readers. The whole package feels like a lilting, fresh, spring breeze. Aretha keeps her vocals nice and subtle, letting her delivery just float over the arrangement, which itself is just a terrific combination of classic soul in the rhythm track glosses by both modern electronic sounds and the flute glissandos–two things which indeed tell us we’re getting deeper into the 70s. The only downer is that with few exceptions (like 1976s Sparkle), Aretha was about to start her sink soon after this into a decade-plus period of mediocre recordings (You, Sweet Passion, La Diva) and little mainstream chart success.
#9: Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain” – #1 U.S., #3 U.K.
Feerick - There’s a lot to say about this song, but first: Let the guessing games begin!
Cummings - I don’t care so much about whether the subject of the song is Mick, or Warren, or David Geffen, or David Cassidy, or whoever. As far as that goes, I find it impressive that the secret has been kept longer than Deep Throat’s, and that people still care about it enough to make jokes and spend small fortunes (as Dick Ebersol did several years back) to have it whispered in his ear. Even more so, I love the fact that I’ve been able to spend the last 40 years parsing the illogical logic of the phrase “I’ll bet you think this song is about you.” For that, and for a song that pretty well sums up the rock-star celebrity culture of the ’70s, Carly deserves all of our sincere thanks.
Dunphy - This was a pretty good time period for Carly. The mystery over the song is a red herring and many have made something from nothing for decades, but to quote Bill Murray from Meatballs, “It just doesn’t matter.” (Hey, maybe the song is a bout Bill Murray!)
Feerick – Fun fact: the subject of this song is actually 15th century Flemish painter and noted fop Jan van Eyck!
Dunphy – …anyway. Having proven she could do the wounded, romantically disillusioned orchestral pop of “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” this track shores up her pop credibility with ease and her vocal blend with Jagger is spot-on. And the lyrics have a nice bit of fang in it, which is something her late ’70s-’80s stuff would severely lack. The L.A. gang of musicians that were so much a part of the Elektra/Asylum sound are in force here, and the solo with all its laid-back bendiness jams right between the ears and stays there for hours.
Feerick – You know who’s pretty vain? Jimmy Ryan, whose guitar solo is as needlessly prominent as it is gratuitously shitty!
You know, for years I misheard the line about “the wife of a close friend” as “the wife of a postman.” My thinking was that postal carriers (used to) have a reputation for, ahem, carrying on with the frustrated housewives on their routes — and that Mr. Vain was such a playa that he was nailing the postman’s wife behind his back. I was a weird kid.
Lifton – It’s about time I told the world. It’s really about me. After all, isn’t everything about me?
Since I already said it once on Twitter I can say it here, too: it wasn’t until about a year ago when it came up on Shuffle play that I discovered that it had Mick Jagger on it. For some reason I had gone 38 years of hearing this without noticing it. I think I never realized because until the last line of the chorus, he’s doubling her lead, even though he seems to be higher in the mix than she is (which is really strange when you think about it).
Dunphy - We’re talking about one of the Rolling Stones in the 1970s. Of course he was higher (take that in every way imaginable).
Bolin - Is it wrong to say that maybe my favorite part of the song is very beginning, which feels almost like a something between just noodling around and a false start. I think it just builds up the anticipation (no Simon-relation pun intended), and the whispered “Son of a gun” just draws you in.
Feerick - That Klaus Voorman bass lick at the start is sick.
Bolin – Then there’s the simple fact that the production and arrangement is just great. I love the almost bombastic strings, and the cool down before the beginning of each chorus, followed by the thundering toms and repeated final line of each verse. And between this and Peter Tosh’s “Don’t Look Back”, Jagger had a nice side gig and a harmony vocalist at times in the 1970s. Wish he had actually done more of that.
#10: Todd Rundgren, “Hello It’s Me” – #5 U.S.
Feerick - Not just a great song, but one that has forever colored my opinion of Todd Rundgren as a person. I’m sure I’ve read stories about him being kind of prickly, but they just slide off me, and I will go to my grave believing that Todd Rundgren must be a pretty nice guy — because he wrote “Hello It’s Me,” and it’s such a loveable, forthright song, from its humble title on down. It’s that rarest of things, a love song for grown-ups. It’s about acknowledging your failings, not playing games or making unreasonable demands. So honest it hurts, but beautiful and hopeful, too.
Cummings - This is a wonderful song. Can anyone argue with that? I don’t have much else to add — except that it pisses me off that I loved Paul Giamatti’s version of it in that awful movie Duets so much that I must flip to it anytime I find it on cable.
Dunphy - I like it but admit to liking it less after paying attention to the lyrics. In the end, the song may be about a sad sack looking for resolution of a love gone wrong, or just plain gone, and it may be all with good intentions, but that “And spend the night if you think I should” belies the whole good-natured vibe. He is just looking for a booty call, and his booty book is too used up at the moment so he’s looking back to one (or some) of his round-the-way girl(s). The melody is great and is carried off effectively, and only Hall & Oates could match Rundgren for blue-eyed soul, but the whole does tend to have some stank on it.
In the end, I love listening to it but cannot fully commit to it like I can with its spiritual cousin, “Can We Still Be Friends.”
Lifton - Jon, you want someone to argue with this song? How about our own Jason Hare?
I love the chords on this. Musically, it’s got pretty much everything I’ve admitted to being a sucker for over the past year – a minor key, a descending progression, and the low harmony (especially when the female voices are lower!). Maybe the lyrics are a little too wimpy, but there’s still something affecting in them.
True story: About 20 years ago I had a dream where I met Carole King and thanked her for this song. Her response was pleasant but also bemused, which is weird. Her reaction tells me that my subconscious knew Rundgren wrote it, and yet I still opened up my mouth.
Bolin - As opposed to the Taylor song, I think this is how you write a sensitive, “maybe we can keep our distance” song without coming off as a slick dick. It also helps that instead of making everything California folk, that the songs uses a Brian Wilson piano, east coast soul rhythm, Beatle-esque harmonies, and clarinet and trumpet (and trombone?) fills for a bit of a French Quarter touch. All of these elements coming together seems to help elevate whatever simplicity there is in the lyrics and I feel make the final product something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Cummings - All this chatter about James and Todd — and what sounds like a whole lot of moralizing about their apparent douchebaggery, for slipping suggestions of sex into their sensitive-guy schticks — just meshed for me with something I wrote a few weeks ago about “Brandy,” the fine girl who couldn’t play along with the sailors’ babe-in-every-port expectations. I wrote, “What kind of sexual revolution IS this?” And maybe, when we’re examining a song like “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” or “Hello It’s Me,” we should be taking into account the difficulties that sensitive guys (some of whom also happened to be Golden Gods of folk-rock) might have experienced trying to fit in with the (here comes the sociology) changing sexual mores of the late ’60s and early ’70s. A lot of the guys who made Something/Anything into a Big Thing probably could only imagine that they’d ever get the opportunity to balance readily-available sex with their…you know…feelings. But still — the fact that Rundgren would write a song full of uncertainty about how tightly to hold onto a (seemingly ambivalent) girl, and toss in a line like “and spend the night if you think I should,” seems even more appropriate to that era than the myriad songs of every other era that have dealt with awkward romance/booty calls. (What the hell is “Need You Now” if not an awkward booty call … that my 10-year-old daughter still loves to caterwaul along with as she watches the video on YouTube?)