1973 didn’t end on such a high note for our humble AM Gold series, so maybe 1974 will pick things up nicely. Maybe.
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#1: Billy Swan, “I Can Help” – #1 U.S. Hot 100 and Hot Country, #6 U.K.
Jack Feerick - More like Billy Shears, amirite? I can’t imagine what would drive any man to want to be the poor man’s Ringo, but this is a pretty good approximation.
Dw. Dunphy - 1974 and 1964 are only a decade apart, and yet they might as well have been a half-century separated. This song, even if it had come five years sooner, is immediately rendered a throwback, even with the innuendo of a line line, “It would sure do me good to do you good.” I like the track though. There are a lot of great memories attached to this tune, and it was one of the last hits for the Momument label, of which Roy Orbison had so many songs upon.
Jon Cummings - I bet a lot of people at the time thought this WAS Ringo, or that it should have been. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that the success of the “Ringo” album in ’73 led directly to this very similar single doing as well as it did. (Ringo’s unreleased version from a decade later, recorded with Chips Moman in Memphis, can be found here. It’s also very easy to imagine Phil Spector or Harry Nilsson handing Lennon a lead sheet for this song in ’74, Lennon being so drunk he thinks it’s a hit from 1958, and recording it for his Rock ‘n’ Roll album.
David Lifton - I like the feel of this – the cheesy roller-rink organ and the double-stops on the guitar are great touches, especially against the lightness of the rhythm track. But the rest of the song just isn’t there.
#2: Carly Simon w/James Taylor, “Mockingbird” – #5 U.S., #34 U.K.
Feerick - Take two of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of the decade, both renowned for the fearlessness and honesty of their work — and who just happen to be a married couple — and let ‘em cut a record together. A tossed-off New Orleans nursery rhyme probably isn’t what you’re looking for, but it’s probably about what you should expect. Digging deep for emotional truth is what JT and Carly do for a living. When they get to spend some time together, they don’t want to talk about work.
Dunphy - This song shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but their call-and-response schtick in it doesn’t set right at all. To me, it sounds like what it probably was: the couple that speaks in their own language and finds each other utterly clever until, eventually, they don’t and all those quirks turn into annoyances. For the rest of the world, they were already annoyances.
Cummings - I’ve been remarkably kind to Carly when we’ve discussed her for this series (“That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” “You’re So Vain”). Now it’s time to bring the hammer down. I can remember that even when I was 8, I was really angry that Carly & James had put out this awful track and gotten it onto the radio. Just because they’d had a few hits, did they think they could record a nursery rhyme (badly) and push it up the charts? (“Hey, guys — I had a top-20 hit last year with ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ so go for it!” one imagines Sir Paul enthusing at the time.) This song has a little bit of everything I hate about most of Carly’s work (that grating voice, primarily) and much of what has always held me back from being a big fan of James (his penchant for unbearable lightness, his belief that he has more blues in him than he actually does). Mostly, though, they just sound so damn SMUG. It drives me crazy.
Dunphy - I agree on this point too. That air of “we did it because we could” vanity does the track no favors, that is true. About the only thing I can think of that gets me through the song is imagining they were baked when they did it, necessitating all the “whoa-whoa-yeah-yeahs.” Hard to kick out those albino soul jams when you can’t remember the lyrics to a nursery rhyme.
Lifton - I prefer this version.
#3: The Spinners w/Dionne Warwicke, “Then Came You” – #1 U.S., #29 U.K.
Feerick - This is a song that Marvin and Tammi would have done as a duet — but Dionne “duets” with four guys, and turns it into a proclamation of love. Not for one of ‘em, but for all four. Sweet, freaky-deaky Big Love. Grrrrrowl! I swear, at one point at least she’s singing “Then came you, and you, and you…” You go on, Miss Kinky Boots!
Dunphy - Love it. Warwick and The Spinners were a natural combination.
Cummings - Hey, we’re just over a decade into this series – the annual albums, I mean, not the interminable snarkiness of our commentary — and we FINALLY come across a Dionne Warwick(e) track I like!!!! This is simultaneously the funkiest Dionne ever got, and perhaps the LEAST funky the Spinners ever got. But it’s still great. The instrumental hook is undeniable, the Philly-soul production gloss works like a charm (thanks, Thom Bell!) — and I love how Phillippe Wynne takes over the Spinners’ half of the vocals from Bobby Smith at the end, just like he does at the end of the last Spinners hit we covered, “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love.” He’s like Jonathan Papelbon or something. (What, Lifton, did you think I was gonna say Rivera? Not on your life.)
Lifton - Comparing Papelfuck to Phillipe Wynne should be punishable by the revocation of your internet license. It will be when I’m in charge.
#4: Redbone, “Come and Get Your Love” – #5 U.S.
Feerick - Another one with the distorted electric sitar! Did the Danelectro people run a discount sale in 1974, or something?
Dunphy – America’s first Native American soul-pop combo was also a one-hit wonder, but what a hit. I get a little giddy whenever I hear it pop up in my MP3 roster, and to this day I’m a little surprised there wasn’t some controversy with the track on pop radio. To my knowledge, the lyrics read “Hey (response – “Hey”), what’s the matter with your head,” and so on. To my ears it sounds like “Hell (Hell!), what’s the matter with your head?” If I’m hearing it, I can’t believe no one else heard it, and I’m surprised there wasn’t any kind of fuss related to it. A lot of things were rendered okay for the masses that the more-uptight 1980s wouldn’t have stood for, so having that call-and-response “Hay-ell!” would not have been a foreign concept, but it also wouldn’t have gone completely unnoticed.
Either way, you have to love that glonky-sounding guitar paired up with those strings. It is, by most standards, a mash-up of an arrangement but it all works together so well, you don’t think to hard that it shouldn’t.
Cummings - Wait a minute. This track doesn’t have Leon Redbone anywhere on it? Or Cathy Dennis? This whole thing is the source of perhaps my biggest pop-music confusion, because in my head I hear a mashup of “Hey-ey … what’s the matter with your hey-ed,” “Too Many Walls” (because “Come On and Get My Love” wasn’t memorable enough), Leon singing “This Bud’s for You” in a TV ad, and “Right Place, Wrong Time” (which is Dr. John, I know, but I always get him and Leon mixed up). I’ve gotta stop thinking about this before my brain does a Three Mile St. Helen’s. (Which was the volcano, and which the nuclear plant? Arrrrrgh, more confusion!)
Lifton - Jack, you probably just hate the electric sitar because Steely Dan used it in a song that had your name in it as a hook.
#5: Maria Muldaur, “Midnight at the Oasis” – #6 U.S., #21 U.K.
Feerick – Maria’s got that Rickie Lee Jones thing going on — that lazy goo-goo-doll pitchiness that passed for “jazzy” in ‘70s L.A. — and it’s pretty hard to take. As for the song itself, underneath its soft-rock trappings it’s pure Tin Pan Alley corn — pretty stupid, but it’s cute to imagine, say, Rudy Vallee singing this circa 1929, with a ukulele comping away at the back.
Apparently Amos Garret’s guitar solo is widely regarded as some kind of high-water mark — it used to get a disproportionate amount if ink when I was reading Guitar Player back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Maybe it was some kind of industry in-joke, though, because, I can’t see what the fuss is about. Sure, it’s tasty, but let’s be honest — you could find a solo of comparable taste and musicality on any random Steely Dan album cut.
Dunphy - Yuck. This is as far from Muldaur’s roots as a ragamuffin folkie as you can get; a sand-caked whiner about getting nailed by a sheik. “The cactus is our friend”?
Cummings - This song is all about the groove and the nonsense, both of which are sublime. In other words, it defines 1974 as well as anything else does. It’s funny to think that someone could go from hanging out with Dylan in the Village to recording this, but what the heck! It was the ’70s, and there was blow everywhere. Dw., would you believe I’ve never paid enough attention to the lyrics (beyond the chorus) to have noticed that “cactus is our friend” line? In any case, as I have nothing further to contribute to a discussion of “Midnight at the Oasis,” please let me take this opportunity to express how much I loved Maria’s daughter Jenni’s debut album in 1992.
Lifton - As with the Billy Swan song, it’s all about the feel. When it’s right, you can get away with all kinds of stupid shit. And isn’t that really about 90% of pop music throughout the ages?