Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 50

Written by Digging for Gold, Music

We’re up to week #50 in our AM Gold series. That’s half of 100!

AM Gold: 1974

“One classic this week, a couple good ones, and a couple that are so much a part of their times you can almost smell the wood grain paneling, orange paint, and faux-fur couch.” – Dw. Dunphy

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


#6: The Hollies, “The Air That I Breathe” – #6 U.S., #2 U.K.; the group’s last Top 20 single in the U.S. or U.K.

Jack Feerick – But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.

Dw. Dunphy – So what we’re hearing, I believe, is Allan Clarke and Terry Sylvester making a very simple sentiment sound like a hymn floating from a cathedral, and I always get a feeling of awe when I hear it as I would from any spiritual. I think it comes from that very basic but intrinsic, utterly human feeling of wanting to be wanted, and being so fulfilled that all else is just clutter in between you and love. There are no mountains to climb or rivers to swim here; it’s just about being in the presence of the one you love and the only thing that remains necessary is to keep breathing. One wonders if that too would be necessary.

David Medsker – On the short list of songs that I wish I had written. It was quite the eye-opener doing research on this song when I wrote it up for our Love Songs piece. I hadn’t heard Albert Hammond’s (wimpy) original, nor had I heard Don Everly’s pre-Hollies, Zevon-orchestrated version. Both lay the groundwork for what the Hollies do here, but what really sets this version apart is the decision to hold that long note in the chorus. Also, that chord sequence from major to minor was awfully inventive for the time. Scores of people still cover this song (including Radiohead, as Jack mentioned) because they want to try and out-sing the Hollies. To date, no one has come close.

David Lifton – I picked up that Hollies box that came out last year that had everything they did up to Graham Nash leaving. I’m convinced that if they had been prolific songwriters they could have been bigger than The Beatles. When they had it, they were untouchable. I didn’t realize this was a cover, too. Goddamn, they could sing.

Jon Cummings – I found this song remarkably haunting when I was an 8-year-old — something about the way Clarke drags out the word “saaahhhhhhmmmmmtiiiiiiiimes,” and the generally elegiac orchestration, made me feel the song had been bequeathed to us by a sophisticated alien life force. Only many years later did I recognize that Clarke’s voice is the same one behind “Bus Stop” and “Carrie-Anne” — but the juxtaposition of this one with those has never made any sense to me.

Lifton – He only sang one verse of “Carrie Anne” if that helps.


#7: America, “Tin Man” – #4 U.S.

Feerick – If “A Horse with No Name” is, as Randy Newman alleges, about an acid trip, then “Tin Man” is a weed-fuelled late-night bullshit session, where everything seems profound at the time but is actually terribly banal.

Medsker – Split Enz fans are basically divided into two camps: odds are you’re a bigger fan of one Finn brother than the other. The same goes for America with me. All of my favorite America songs were written by Gerry Beckley. Beckley didn’t write this one. ‘Nuff said.

Dunphy – Egad, I think you’re right. Beckley wrote “Sister Golden Hair,” didn’t he?

Medsker – Yep, as well as my second favorite America song, “Daisy Jane.”

Dunphy – Strangely, the song is annoying on several levels but the one that hits me most is the double-negative. “Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man” means Oz gave him something. Why in the world it should be that and not a litany of other things — the total nonsensical nature of it, the spineless sound of it, or the fact that it puts me right back into a doctor’s office mentally, getting hundreds of needles stuck in my arm to find out what I was allergic to (short answer: EVERYTHING) — confounds me. Them double-negatives ain’t no nothing but no edjumacation.

Lifton – Jack, Randy Newman said it’s about a kid who thinks he’s taken acid, but still. Yeah, the lyrics suck, but it’s built around major seventh chords and the “When I say I’m spinning round” section is so pretty that I overlook them.

Cummings – I’ve never been bothered by the double-negative in the chorus … it’s just about everything ELSE that bothers me with this song. So much weird, yet apparently tossed-off imagery in these America songs! The title line is kinda profound, and I like it a lot … but the rest of it is just jibberish. Do I really need to troll the internet to find out what this dude is talking about when he brings up “the tropic of Sir Galahad”? (OK, I did, for a minute, but remain unsatisfied with the answers and don’t care enough to torture myself further.) And do I really need to worry about what’s gonna happen to the Tin Man if he keeps spinning ’round, ’round, ’round, ’round? That could get messy.

Lifton – It’s actually a triple-negative when you throw in the rest of the sentence (“…that he didn’t already have”).

And no, I’m not counting the repitition of “didn’t” as a quadruple, so you wiseasses shouldn’t even try.

Dunphy – I’m thinking that someday we should catalogue all the nutso imagery in America songs and try to connect them with the psychoactive drug that probably instigated it. For instance, what would make an alligator-lizard in the air, eh?

Dan Wiencek – I’m thinking peyote.

Feerick – DING DING DING DING DING

Medsker – Jim Morrison was not a role model, people.

Dunphy – Alligator lizards are a real thing, as it turns out. But they don’t fly — except around Dewey’s opiate-addled brain.


#8: Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” – #1 U.S.; released after Paper Lace hit #1 with the song in the U.K.

Feerick – There are plenty of bad songs in this world, but very few that provoke an instant, visceral reaction like this one. And that reaction is this: I want to punch Bo Donaldson right in his stupid face, and never stop. The guy is probably in his seventies now, but I don’t care. Face. Punch. Forever.

Dunphy – Paper Lace did “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” before Bo Donaldson did, no?

Chris Holmes – They charted in the U.K. with it first, then Bo Donaldson rushed to release a U.S. version. The Paper Lace version stalled in the 90s on the charts here.

Dunphy – So Jack, you would have to beat up the members of Paper Lace first. Or maybe go ahead and beat up Bo Donaldson because he wanted it so badly.

What the heck — beat them all up. They’re old now and can’t put up too much of a fight.

Feerick – Stick with the devil you know, I figure. I mean, I already know I hate Donaldson’s version. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Paper Lace’s; I’m pretty sure I’d hate it, too, but why jump to conclusions?

Dunphy – Well, you know I like tormenting you.

Feerick – *adds Dunphy’s name to “punch in face forever” list*

Dunphy – Clearly you haven’t looked at my picture enough to know many, many people have beaten you to it.

Ahem.

But I will concur that “The Night Chicago Died” does have a bit of a Sweet sound to it. Maybe not so much in the actual song’s construction but definitely in the harmony structure employed in the vocals. And overall I can tolerate the song in the smallest of doses. As an indicator of a time period, this goes arm-in-arm with feather-hair pop-rock like the Bay City Rollers, etc.

But “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” is indefensible, even as quasi-ironic soundtrack fodder. It is just so wimpy, from the subject matter to the delivery, to the band’s name. What the heck is a Heywood anyhow? Buy I think the worst part about this song is that Paper Lace did it first. Have we mentioned that yet?

Medsker – I always just wrote this off as one of those ‘story’ songs like “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Run Joey Run” and, as it turns out, our next song. I never gave them much weight because, well, they were all pretty slight. The funny thing is, if someone released this song now… it would flop. Also, it would be deemed unpatriotic.

Dunphy – Opening a Wiki entry on Donaldson & the Heywoods is like opening up your parents’ old curio box in their room and finding your old baby teeth and first haircut trimmings in there. It ought to be charming and innocent, but really it’s rather deranged.

“Harold “Corky” Pickering, a member of the group, came up with The name “The Heywoods” or “Heywood” from a Rolling Stones album, named after a man with the last name of Heywood, which was a writer of at least one of The Rolling Stones songs. “Corky” Pickering liked the ring that this name gave and thought it was appropriate,the name just suited them.”

Strike one. I’ve never heard of this “Heywood” song but it might actually exist. Even so, they pilfered that title to name their band?

Strike two. They ran like hell to cover “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” to have a hit before the Paper Lace version crossed the pond. What kinda crap is that?

Strike three. Robert Walter “Bo” Donaldson. Who the heck did he grift the nickname “Bo” from?! I Smell A Rat!

Feerick – Sounds like a pantload to me. There’s no Stones song called “Heywood,” and no writing credits on any Stones albums to anyone by that name — which is what I think that passage is meant to imply, although seeing as it reads as if it’s been machine-translated from Esperanto to Lithuanian before coming back to English, it’s kind of hard to tell.

I’m pretty sure the band really took their handle from my old friend Heywood Jablomi; ask for him by name.

Medsker – That was exactly what I was thinking, but didn’t want to go there. Should have gone there.

Lifton – Why the fuck are we spending so much time discussing something that is on the perennial “Worst Pieces Of Shit Of All-Time” list?

Dunphy – Because we’re probably going to miss it terribly once we sink into 1975.

Might I also add that Leo Sayer is a scary little man. Why is he screaming?

Cummings – Shut up, you idiots! What makes you qualified to trash great songs like “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero”? Have you ever made a hit record yourselves? I didn’t think so! You just sit there at your computers in your bathrobes and find great songs to pick at, but you don’t begin to understand the quality of both the music and the lyrics to this song. Bo Donaldson is a sensitive, genuine guy who made great music that millions of people loved, yet you think you can sit here 40 years later and call it garbage. Why don’t you crawl back under whatever rock you came out of until you find some actual musical or critical talent?

Ahem … now that I’m finished channeling the type of commenter I would be if you removed half my cranium, I will simply state that I cannot participate in the trashing of “Billy” or our next tooooooon because they’re just too important to my childhood. I pointedly did not include them in my list of the Worst Number One Songs of the ’70s, and one of my favorite previous Popdose columns is the one I called “Six Degrees of Bo Donaldson.” That column discussed the song’s progeny — including the fact that it (like our next song) was written by Mitch Murray, best-remembered now as the songwriter behind the song (“How Do You Do It”) that the Beatles refused to release as their first or second single when George Martin tried to push it on them. I could get all analytical here, and talk about how “Billy” was about the Civil War in the same way that M*A*S*H* was about Korea — i.e., that both were metaphors for Vietnam, and that “Billy” is really the musical version of John Kerry’s famous question, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” But then you nimrods might actually have to THINK about this classic track, and regret your idiotic dismissal of its many fine qualities. And heaven forbid you actually think before you type this junk you call music criticism. (sorry)

Lifton – Maybe, but Bruce Springsteen’s “Last to Die” is a far superior musical asking of the same question.

Dunphy – I don’t have a bathrobe.


#9: Paper Lace, “The Night Chicago Died”– #1 U.S., #3 U.K..

Feerick – What’s weirdest about this song — and there’s a lot that’s weird about this song, but this is the weirdest — is the vague undercurrent of glam rock. That double-time intro, the wailing synths, the handclaps and gang vocals and twin-guitar harmonies — this could be the Sweet, having a laugh on their day off.

Still, it’s not a patch on the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s “No Lights on the Christmas Tree.

Medsker – Jack has a point about the glam aspects of this song, which are surely the reason why I liked it so much as a kid. Now I listen to the barroom piano in the chorus and am wondering when Leo Sayer is going to jump in. Also, I’m slightly ashamed for the child I once was.

Lifton – There is no East Side of Chicago. It’s called Lake Michigan. Fuck you, Paper Lace! Signed, Chicago

Cummings – As previously noted, what I said about “Billy” applies here, too. It’s such a well-told tale for a silly pop song — though it does, of course, feature one of the two most prominent factual errors in pop history — and it introduced this 8-year-old to the kind of excitement that kids 40 years before had gotten from Jimmy Cagney movies. I love how you guys like this, but hate “Billy.” As far as I’m concerned, anybody with a foul word for either song deserves a nice vacation on the east side of Chicago — without a life raft.

Lifton – I hate both, if it’s any consolation.


#10: Al Wilson, “Show and Tell” – #1 U.S.; Wilson’s biggest hit and highest-charting single since “The Snake” hit #27 in 1968.

Feerick – It’s stupid and reductive to generalize on broad sociological questions based on the selections of the music licensers at Time-Life, but: Man, Black America had wa-a-ay better taste in the ‘70s than White America. Or maybe just better luck. In any case, chart R&B was absolutely kicking chart Pop’s ass.

Medsker – Listening to this is like unlocking a memory that had long been buried. Reading the artist name and song title did nothing, but hearing the track… oh yes, I remember this. And it is good.

Dunphy – This is a great song, made slightly sad by the reality that Al Wilson has just about zero name-recognition now. He passed away in 2008 and there may or may not have been given his due then. Hey, I’m just as guilty. I thought this was by any number of other soul-men for many years.

Lifton – Yeah, this is a beauty. Melodic leaps in the chorus are one of my favorite vocal hooks. Bacharach did them all the time (“Always Something There To Remind Me,” “My Little Red Book”). It’s a great way to sell a lyric. You also need the chops to pull them off, and Wilson’s got plenty to spare.

Cummings – This is good, if second-tier, soul-pop, and it deserved its success. I wish Wilson had been a bit more emotive in some fashion — a growl on the lower-register vocals, a wail on the choruses — but the song (particularly the verses) overcomes any quibbles with the performance. I’m more interested in Jack’s discussion of the juxtaposition of ’70s white-pop and soul on these AM Gold collections. I agree that the contrast can be striking — but at least it’s here for us to notice, as opposed to the Rhino Have a Nice Day and Didn’t It Blow Your Mind series, which were largely segregated. Mind you, I think each series was important in its own right for keeping so many relatively minor hits within collectors’ reach during the years before downloading — but I rarely listened to one of the “Have a Nice Day” CDs without wishing that the soul hits of its time period had also been included. (Of course, my favorite edition of “HaND” is Volume 13 — the one that includes “Billy,” “Chicago,” and most of the other songs we’re covering in this series. Speaking of which, I just snuck a look at the tracks for next week’s column, and I’m all a-quiver with the anticipation of revisiting more awful/wonderful faves from ’74!)

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