Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 52
“This week certainly is no stunner, is it? Six songs that either represent the weaker edge of seventies pop, filler for a K-Tel comp, or just AM moments of my youth that never connected themselves in a meaningful way. About the only track this week that has any pertinence to me is “Rock Me Gently” and that’s because it’s so darn silly.” – The ever-optimistic Dw. Dunphy
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#17: Andy Kim, “Rock Me Gently” – #1 U.S., #2 U.K.
Jack Feerick - Every generation gets the fake Neil Diamond it deserves.
David Lifton - Another one that Jason has covered in far better detail than I ever could (and he even namechecks Cummings!).
Dw. Dunphy - I like this song and don’t really know why. The chorus has a heck of a powerful hook that really grabs your brain and doesn’t let it go, but the track is in essence a pop song for people who don’t like pop songs (of that era). It is Neil Diamond for people who hate Neil Diamond, T-Rex in the chorus for people who fear those sketchy glam people, it has backup singers yanked straight out of a CBS pop star variety show with their big, toothy smiles and polyester bell-bottomed pantsuits, and uses the classic pop term that is a euphemism for “sexual congress” in just about the most unsexy-sounding fashion I could think of…but it has that hook. You’ll hate yourself for humming it all day long.
Jon Cummings - Man, Archie grows up into one swarthy motherfucker, doesn’t he? What will Betty and Veronica say when he shows up at the 10th reunion with that cucumber down his pants?
Look, I already noted last week that “Rock Me Gently” is a cornerstone of my pop fandom — my very first favorite pop song, and still right up there. I’ll grant every criticism of it, from dopiness to ND sound-alikity, but still … this single may be the apotheosis of bubblegum (and those are two words you don’t often find back-to-back), even more than “Sugar Sugar” (which Andy co-wrote). What it’s got that “Sugar Sugar” didn’t is the funkiness of its arrangement — funky enough that the instrumental B-side got significant airplay on R&B stations. When Jason name-checked me, he actually was correct — I sing this song in my head a LOT, and I sang my kids to sleep with it when they were little, and if I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to create a playlist for my deathbed, “Rock Me Gently” will no doubt be on it. (And now that that bit of sincerity is out of the way, I promise to be suitably cynical for the remainder of this column.)
David Medsker - Neil Diamond and David Cassidy were getting more ass than a toilet seat at this point in time, so it makes sense that someone would come up with a song that would appeal to both fan bases. Still, I have the same disconnect with the title that another Popdoser has (I think Dunphy, but I’m not sure) with Paul Davis’ “I Go Crazy”; you’re either rocking me hard, or you’re not rocking me at all. There is no such thing as rocking someone gently.
#18: David Essex, “Rock On” – #5 U.S., #3 U.K.
Feerick - It floors me that something so frankly experimental could be such a huge hit. It’s more like a raga than a pop song, right down to the tabla and the microtonal Indian strings, and every element is filtered through production techniques designed to confound and wrong-foot you. The weird delays, the super-low bass frequencies, the ping-pong stereo effects — it’s just staggering, especially on headphones. Sounds like nothing before or since.
Lifton - As I said a while ago when we talked about “Drift Away,” I find that whole genre of songs about rock n’ roll to be mostly laughable. It was such obvious pandering that it had no choice but to work.
Dunphy - The worst thing about this song is that it gave Michael Damian something to do in the 1980s. Aside from that, it was a weird track that somehow managed to survive what was becoming a cookie-cutter system of pop-music extrusion, where voices sounded aesthetically alike and the actual instrumentation was becoming plainer, more steamlined. I will give partial credit here to RCA Records who had on their label around this time Iggy Pop, Harry Nilsson, David Bowie, Lou Reed, (I believe) The Kinks, and John Denver. Harumph — all names that evoke images of extreme individuality (some for better, others for worse). I sincerely feel that this song would not have come out on any other label at this time.
David Allen Jones - The Kinks were indeed on RCA in 1974, having just released the unlistenable Preservation Act 2.
Cummings - “Rock On” certainly was an anomaly on American radio – and it was an anomaly as well for Essex, who was more a teenybop idol than a purveyor of experimental electro-pop — but it makes more sense for me when I place it in the context of the UK glam-rock movement, which was wrapping up when the song came out. Its backward-looking lyrics fit with the rockabilly trappings of Gary Glitter, who was the biggest thing going in England in ’74, and one imagines “Rock On” sitting far more easily on British radio alongside Slade, Sweet and T. Rex than it did amongst “The Way We Were” and “Love’s Theme” in the U.S. Personally, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the song — mostly love, until Michael Damian came along — but part of my enduring affection for it has more to do with its direct descendant, R.E.M.’s “Drive,” which has its own sense of nostalgia.
Medsker - I remember when there was a fuss about the fact that it took a white group like the Beastie Boys to bring rap to the masses. (Does anyone call it rap anymore?) Isn’t that pretty much what’s going on here, too? This has some glam elements, but at its core it’s a dub track that became a hit because a white boy sang it. I’m all for dub crossing over – I just wish it had been something better than this.
#19: Three Dog Night, “The Show Must Go On” – #4 U.S.
Feerick – You know, I’m tired of trying to find new things to say about Three Dog Night. So I’ll just dispense with “The Show Must Go On” (except to say: Hello, Leo Sayer; we’ll be back for you later), and talk a little bit about Julius Fučík, who takes an awful beating here.
Fučík’s “Grande Marche Chromatique,” which he later retitled “Entrance of the Gladiators,” was a noble attempt to make something new, to fuse the explosive power of the military march with the melodic freedom of the new, chromatically-based Impressionist music — the modern daring of Debussy with the muscle of John Philip Sousa. He was only 25 when he wrote it, and it’s got the bravura of youth, aiming to take the chromatic approach out of academia and the salons and bring it to the people, to the village bandstand; to be bold and exciting, a daredevil piece, tricksy to play and thrilling to listen to.
Instead, it has become doomed to be butchered by hacks looking for a quick ‘n’ dirty way to evoke the big top. Pfah! Pfah, I say!
As for the song: It’s no “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” that’s for sure.
Lifton – Christ, were they still around at this point? I never would have guessed.
But thanks for that information, Jack. I never knew that song had a name beyond “That Carnival Song.”
Dunphy - Most pop stars don’t give a Fučík about their cultural appropriations.
This has to be the last Three Dog hit. They can’t have anything left in the canon (or anything left to fire out of the cannon) after this. I know we’ll get responders defending this song’s passion and soul and angst, but I just hear a white guy screaming about being disenchanted with rock star life. It is one of, if not the hardest bullet points to make a song of, and the popular music graveyard is littered with tunes bemoaning the shallowness of celebrity. Yet most of these songs are as shallow as the subject they seek to address/condemn, and is still the stuff of crybabies for the most part. You know very well they were singing the “poor, poor me” blues at least half this time to gain the sympathies of those who would then turn around and “rock them gently,” so this type of song is also deceitful…and friggin’ screamy.
Cummings - Actually, Dw., 3DN had two more minor, yet infinitely more palatable, hits in ’74 — with John Hiatt’s “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here” and Allen Toussaint’s “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues).” But I’m with you on “Show” — it’s just awful. Leo Sayer’s version isn’t particularly good, either, but at least it’s less histrionic (Negron sings this the same way Dr. Hook sang “Sylvia’s Mother”) and more grounded. Plus, Leo sang, “I WON’T let the show go on,” and reportedly wasn’t happy with the lyric change. (He took the money, though.) If you listen to Leo’s original, or to 3DN’s version of “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here,” the extent to which Negron shifts his vocal style to ape each song’s original singer is mildly infuriating. The worst thing for me, though, is that I simply don’t want to listen to carnival music on pop radio … though at least it goes faster, and more quietly, in Leo’s original.
Medsker - Last week I talked about the fact that anyone who tried to sing “When Will I See You Again” would overdo it and miss the point. That is exactly what Three Dog Night does here. Leo Sayer’s version was already overblown, but that was the point, right? The Three Dog Nightmare version doesn’t seem to understand that, among other things. For starters, this is one of those songs that should have no backing vocals, and if you listen to the listless ones Chuck Negron’s mates provide here, you’ll wonder why they bothered at all.
The bigger thing for me, though, is the way Negron screams the “high wire” part in the chorus. One of the cool things about Sayer’s version is how he jumps from scruffy tenor to falsetto without missing a beat. Negron refuses to follow suit, and it just sounds like yelling followed by more yelling.
Lastly, there is the change of lyric in the last line of the chorus. “But I must let the show go on”? Not ‘won’t,’ but ‘must’? That’s like singing, “But I, I, I, am totally gonna play Sun City,” without changing any of the other lyrics. Dumb.
Cummings - Exactly. Leo is The Defiant Clown. Negron is The Resigned Ass-Clown.
#20: Marvin Hamlisch, “The Entertainer” – #3 U.S.
Feerick – Sounds like Hamlisch, too, is trying to fuse chromaticism — in this case, Scott Joplin’s ragtime — with a Sousa-style band arrangement; but it’s to an entirely different effect. Canny old Hollywood whorehorse that he is, he’s creating a sort of pan-American pastiche, blending the two most important strains of post-Civil War American music — one black, one white — into a single, instantly evocative sound.
It’s very clever, and I can still barely believe that this became a radio hit.
Lifton - See, Dunphy! You bag on the ‘Lisch and it comes back to bite you on the ass. With an Academy Award-winner, too. Who among us who grew up in the ’70s with a piano in the house didn’t annoy the living hell out of their parents trying to learn how to play this?
Dunphy - I credit the success of this song to a few reasons — the popularity of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, for starters. This was before the rise of the mega-blockbuster (surfacing with Jaws, only a few years later) but Newman and Redford were two of the biggest male stars in Hollywood in the 1970s and as the presumptive theme song of The Sting, I think a lot of listeners hooked into residual goodwill for the movie over the song itself. This was before home video and on-demand, so the ancillary markets for movie paraphernalia was pretty strong. You had movie programs, posters, novelizations and yes, soundtracks to remind you of the film. Beyond that, it was unlikely you would see the movie again for a long time…maybe when it finally cycled down to the ABC Sunday Night Movie. We’re spoiled in that we can call up a specific movie experience anytime we want.
We also have to reckon this connectivity suddenly turned a long-dead ragtime innovator into a pop star, which does degrade the impact of the song a bit. “The Entertainer” is a fine little piece of music, but it was even then an old-timey throwback. So Hamlisch provides a serviceable rendition here. It is a man at the piano, after all, and therefore his Broadway-influenced cheek (cringe?) doesn’t have an opportunity to slap you with jazz-hands since this is not his own composition — just an arrangement. As such, it is fine. But the people that made this track a hit were Redford and Newman.
Medsker - I love that this video had 36 views at the time I pulled it up.
Funny to think about the days when a good movie theme – not a good movie soundtrack song, but a good movie theme – could become a crossover hit. Did people really call the station to request this song? I guess I never minded it, but I wasn’t exactly sitting by the receiver for it to come on again, either.
Cummings - It’s weird enough … if understandable, given the song’s innate appeal and the general love for The Sting in ’73-’74 … that a Scott Joplin tune would make a splash on radio 70 years after it was introduced. But then, for the song to appear on a ’90s-vintage AM Gold set, it means that there’s some sorta freaky meta-nostalgia going on — nostalgia for a ’70s nostalgia trip. Bizarro. Might I suggest to the brain surgeons at Time-Life that if they wanted to pick a novelty song to go along with all the other ’74 goofiness, they might have chosen “The Streak”? Or “Spiders and Snakes”? Or “Energy Crisis ’74″?
#21: Helen Reddy, “Angie Baby” – #1 U.S., #5 U.K.; written by Alan O’Day.
Feerick - *lights an entire pack of Lucky Strikes with a single match, inhales deeply*
A suitable case for treatment: Miss Angie Baby. Like many an awkward teenager, finding companionship in the sounds of a bedside radio, in the prison of her loneliness. But if you hear the voices of the lost and the missing coming from your dashboard receiver as you pass by, it’s best to spit through your fingers and put the pedal to the floor until you’re safely clear of… the Twilight Zone.
*grimaces, showing bottom teeth*
*smokes all twenty cigarettes*
Lifton – The person who uploaded the video for this song wrote, “This is one of my fav song that is not journey or Steve Perry.”
I have nothing to add to that.
Medsker - My love for “Undercover Angel” and O’Day’s theme for Mellowmas aside, this song left absolutely no impact on my whatsoever, then or now.
Dunphy - Helen Reddy sure hasn’t survived well over these years. For the most part when I read the titles of some of these songs, I can remember them. These are even for one-hit wonders that likely should have less recognition. For Reddy, I know she hat a good chunk of hits, I know she sang a song called “Angie Baby,” but can I actually remember it? No. What about her other hits? A couple of them maybe, but for the most part not so much. The one that has become fodder for sitcom jokes (“I Am Woman,” in case that wasn’t obvious, Balki…) springs to mind solely because no one would let you forget it. It has very little to do with the song itself being anything memorable.
If this is just my lack of memory, then so be it. However if this is something experienced by more people than not, that has to stink for Reddy. Big deal pop star for a quarter of the 1970s and no quantifiable way of capitalizing on it (not that I think she’s concerned about doing so at this stage). I guess she’s grateful just for not being called Miss Murray anymore.
So what do I think about “Angie Baby” now that my memory’s been refreshed? Well, there it is, isn’t it?
Cummings - Much of what I wrote about Helen’s version of “Delta Dawn” applies here as well, in terms of Reddy seemingly having no idea what kind of artist she wanted to be (yet succeeding all over the map during this era). However, I gotta admit that I found the whole concept of “Angie Baby” quite compelling when I was a kid — the lonely/crazy/all-powerful girl, sitting in her room fixated on the radio and entrapping some poor boy as her love slave. Turn the genders around, rationalize the morality of the whole thing, and let’s face it, boys — that was pretty much your first masturbatory fantasy, wasn’t it? (Actually, turn the genders around, slap a smiley face on the story, and you pretty much have “Undercover Angel.” Alan O’Day clearly had quite the fantasy life before he got himself mixed up with Jeff and Jason, the place where dreams go to die.)
#22: Dave Loggins, “Please Come to Boston” – #5 U.S.
Michael Parr - You know, I like “Please Come Back to Boston,” but I much prefer “Footloose.”
Feerick – I’ve always been fond of this’n, gawdawful phased guitars and all. I like the ache in Loggins’s voice, and the evocative lyrics — the Denver verse, in particular. And it does a clever thing of charting our hero’s fortunes over time, without making a big deal it — just the telling details as he rises from couch-surfing in Boston, scrambling for a café gig, to top-of-the-world in his L.A. mansion (those ocean views aren’t cheap, y’know). It’s smart, economical writing.
The 21st Century variation of course, would start with “Please Come to Austin” and make a stop in Brooklyn before winding up in Portland, Oregon.
Medsker - LOLZ. With some kind of product placement carelessly thrown in.
Feerick - “By the Starbucks where I hope to be working soon…”
Lifton - Pretty song, but one that you can see why it’s been kind of lost in the shuffle. It reflects the restlessness of the times – the idea of people going off to find themselves was, I guess, kind of a new thing back then. So that means we can blame Dave Loggins for “Eat Pray Love,” then?
Dunphy - Lake Flaccid.
Medsker - It’s fun to listen to songs like this with grown-up ears. The lyrics make more sense, and you can see why they added the previously discussed mega-flange on the guitar (rope the glam kids in). I never cared much for those clinically depressed singer/songwriters from this era (Harry Chapin’s “Taxi,” anyone?), but I didn’t mind this, and still don’t. Damning with faint praise, I suppose, but it’s praise just the same.
Cummings - We kids got a geography lesson out of this song, if nothing else. I love Jack’s updating of hipster-doofus destinations — but these days an obviously mainstream singer-songwriter guy, like the protagonist here, would be more likely to head straight to Nashville. In fact, were it written today the song’s perspective might pull a 180, with girlfriends from Austin, Brooklyn and Portland begging their boyfriends to get the hell out of Music City.