Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 55
This week’s installment proves, once and for all, that we are not the cynical, cold-hearted bunch we seem to be sometimes. Witness the praise heaped upon Captain & Tennille.
(Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#11: Frankie Valli, “My Eyes Adored You” – #1 U.S.; Recorded by the Four Seasons but released under Valli’s name.
Jack Feerick - This is why Apple puts the skip button on the iPod.
Dw. Dunphy - This song is just audio-moosh. There’s no “here” here. It is a dispassionate song about passion. Valli sounds as he has always sounded, and if you appreciate him you probably like the song. If you don’t, you’ll pull it apart like a chicken in a crocodile pen. I think the element that bugs me most is that second line…”Though I never laid a hand on you.” There’s something quite interfering about that line. It makes you think more than you should when it comes to a bland love ditty like this. It says, “I want to grope you, but I can’t, so my eyes dry-humped you,” in essence.
Chris Holmes - Absolutely, positively bloodless. Every time the chorus approaches, I feel like I’m driving on a desert road and I’m about to crest a hill and finally encounter something interesting on the landscape. Instead it’s just several more miles of sand and monotony.
Dunphy - Yes. This is baby-making music for people who “always have a headache” tonight.
Jon Cummings - Such dreck … and such a shame that the Time-Life geniuses regurgitated this song for “AM Gold” instead of the far more interesting “Swearin’ to God” from later in ’75. And it’s CREEPY dreck, too — as Dunphy said, that “never laid a hand on you” line leaves me thinking “stalker” or “pedophile” rather than “unrequited love.” My wife inexplicably loves this song, though, so I’d better stop trashing it or she’ll spend the next week caterwauling it at me on the sofa.
David Lifton – Listening to this for the first time since I saw Jersey Boys three years ago, I can’t help but wonder how much better this would be if it had started with “My eyes adored you / Though I never laid a hand on you / Because I couldn’t afford you” and gone from there.
And once again, my theory of songs that start on the chorus because the verses have nothing to say chalks up another victim.
#12: Linda Ronstadt, “You’re No Good” – #1 U.S.; her first and only #1 U.S. single, and the first of three consecutive Top 10 hits.
Feerick - This reminds me forcibly of any number of Richard Thompson songs, and now I desperately want to hear him cover it.
Particularly Thompsonian is that brutal second verse, where Linda incriminates herself — it takes two to do the horizontal tango, after all — and those foreboding guitar lines.
Come to think of it, Richard has recorded a song with the repeated chorus “You’re no good” (before turning it around at the climax and admitting, “I’m no good”). But that one was more about stove-in heads than broken hearts.
Dunphy - It’s a cover, of course, but I think by the time Linda got a hold of hit the song had disappeared fairly thoroughly. That might be a big reason why she came to own this track. Another might be just how well it is done — I think this song is off of Heart Like a Wheel, prior to her Elektra/Asylum tenure, so you’re getting this convergence of people on the song from Peter Asher on to her El Lay pop friends, most of whom comprised the E/A roster. The track is immaculately constructed, soulful yet not forsaking the anger that is at the basis of the lyric, and that outro (which I think is harmonics played on the guitar, but I’m not 100% sure) is a classic hook.
Holmes - I’m totally down with Linda’s version of this song, but my favorite will always be Van Halen’s. What the latter lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in sonic punch.
Cummings - Far and away Ronstadt’s best single (post-”Long, Long Time,” at least) — partly because it’s a cover of a song nobody remembered anymore, but mostly because it’s one of the few times that she sounded like she was actually pouring her heart, soul and guts into a song she was interpreting. In fact, she improves dramatically on Betty Everett’s original, as far as I’m concerned; Betty sang it with the same lack of nuance and emotion that Linda brought (or, rather, didn’t bring) to too many of her late-’70s hits. Generally speaking, the Heart Like a Wheel album is killer; it’s just too bad the fall was so swift, quality-wise, once she went over to Asylum.
Lifton - According to Wikipedia, Andrew Gold played pretty much everything on the track. Everything I’ve ever known has now been turned upside down.
#13: Earth, Wind & Fire, “Shining Star” – #1 U.S. Hot 100 and Hot Soul
Feerick - I dig the snotty, bratty quality to the vocals of ‘70s funk — there’s an edge of mockery even to that chorus: You’re a shining star? Yeah, right you are…It’s a lot of fun, as long as you feel that you’re in on the joke.
And I love the opening guitar riff, which sounds like it could turn into a Clapton-style rockabilly shuffle before it gets nice ‘n’ greasy.
Dunphy - Few bands merged the pop, funk, and soul like EWF. Kool & The Gang might have rivaled them but they quickly slid straight into pop territory from their funky early sides, so during this golden period EWF really did have the run of the place. They’re still around, and while I think the world of Phillip Bailey, it just is not the same without Maurice White there.
Holmes - It’s hard to listen to this objectively, as it’s been so thoroughly co-opted by TV shows and movie soundtracks, but hot damn is this wickedly funky and smooth at the same time.
Cummings - About 15 years ago I completely lost my taste for EWF’s hits, which must be the most overplayed of all ’70s oldies. Apart from “Serpentine Fire,” maybe, I can’t bear it when they come on the radio. Anything I say about “Shining Star” will be tainted by that fact, so I’ll just shut up about it rather than slag off a song that I recognize is perfectly funky and worthwhile.
Lifton - I can’t believe I’m a week late to the party on this batch of songs and nobody has referenced this yet.
#14: War, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” – #6 U.S.
Feerick - I mentioned a while back that children were still an important part of the singles market in the early 1970s. “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” was Exhibit A, and this is Exhibit B.
There’s a lot to recommend War, of course—the harmony vocals a pretty lush, and they could always kick up a decent groove — but in a sense I think they lost more than they gained in the departure of Eric Burdon. His was a distinctive voice and lyrical sensibility, and as this song proves, War’s post-Burdon lyrics were, ah… not for the ages, let’s say. And hearing the individual singers taking their spotlight turns here, the emphasis on gang vocals elsewhere starts to look less like an aesthetic statement about solidarity than a tactical admission that none of these guy was really strong enough to carry a whole song on his own.
Dunphy - I like this a lot, and like “The Cisco Kid” as much. War had a nice layer of grit on them that was uncommon for radio of the times. Contrast this rough and ready track with the sonic sheen of “You’re No Good” or the lack of immediacy in “My Eyes Adored You” and you start to understand the appeal of A.M. radio back then. You could hear all kinds of sounds trailing one after another, for better or worse, but it was mostly distinctive.
And so we enter our column’s weekly Old Man Rant sponsored in part by Dw. Dunphy, Malcolm’s Talcum (“If you want the dames, throw this under your pits”), and Quigley’s Black Salve (“Oy, that’s got drawing power!”). The pop music block of today is typified by sameness, even if a song might appear that is really good. You will hear the most current Kung-Fu in the production world: auto-tune, although that might finally be on the downward slide; digital harmonizer on the vocals; the music breakdown at the end of the song so only the vocalist is left; and so on and so forth. For a young audience that hasn’t had a lifetime of music absorption, and is equally comforted by a sense of familiarity across their audio palette, this is fine. For those of us who remember the concept (illustrated this week by six songs that barely sound at all like each other) it is difficult to near-impossible to handle such constancy.
And I would love to say it is a phase that will eventually break and people will start gravitating to other sounds. They will, of course, but it is they that will fall out of pop and into other charts and genres. They aren’t likely to drag those sounds into the pop charts to freshen things up, so we are left with almost a fascistic sense of continuity at play. You either sound like us or you are not us. You will walk our walk, talk our talk, and produce as we produce, or you will be told to leave…at least that’s how these old ears hear it.
Holmes - This is just a little too clever and tongue-in-cheek for its own good.
Cummings - You know how folks tend to hyperbolize minor achievements over time, or turn small events from there lives into Tall Tales? Well, by the time I interviewed War’s guitarist/co-founder, Howard Scott, in 1994 (upon the release of the band’s last studio album, Peace Sign), he was talking as though “Why Can’t We Be Friends” was a cultural moment on par with the Gettysburg Address or “I Have a Dream” or something. Jack and Dw. have been talking, somewhat nostalgically, about how the success of this song represents the superior diversity of ’70s pop over today’s, which is certainly true — and as I recall it, part of the appeal of “Why Can’t We Be Friends” was its novelty even in the moment. I wish “AM Gold” had
served up more of the novelty hits that helped make radio so kid-friendly during the ’70s — stuff like Jim Stafford and “The Streak” and “Mr. Jaws” (which featured snippets of two of this week’s songs, including “Why Can’t We Be Friends”).
Lifton - I’m with Jack on this. It sounds great and the sentiment is unimpeachable, but there’s really not much else here. Even at 3:51, it seems to go on too long because the verses are only a couplet and the chorus (again, another song that starts with the chorus) doesn’t go anywhere.
#15: Captain & Tennille, “Love Will Keep Us Together” – #1 U.S., #32 U.K.
Feerick - I’ll always have a soft spot for (the) Captain and Tennille. They don’t get nearly enough credit for being the template for every synthpop duo that followed — the taciturn musical mastermind and the big-voiced, theatrical frontperson. They were the Eurythmics before Eurythmics, the Erasure before Erasure, the Pet Shop Boys before Pet Shop Boys. I’m half-joking, yes. But that means I’m half-serious, too.
David Medsker - I had never connected the dots, but Jack’s on to something here. The first 45 I ever bought was by the Captain and Tennille (“Shop Around”), and I own the entire catalogs of all three bands he cites as their followers. Huh.
Will Harris - RE: Captain & Tennille as the proto-Erasure, tell me you can’t imagine Andy Bell belting this out to Vince Clarke’s synths…
Dunphy - It’s not bad. It’s interminably sunny, but it is not bad nor painful. It’s no “Muskrat Love.”
Holmes - There are probably 100 reasons why I should hate this song, but I love it. It’s just so damn earnest and sunny. And I like the little “Sedaka is back” vocal tag at the very end, a nod to his authorship of the song.
Cummings - It’s so heartwarming, the way our defenses melt in the face of “Love Will Keep Us Together,” despite our internal struggles. The song is almost unbearably awesome, isn’t it? And Toni Tennille was/is almost unbearably toothy, wasn’t she? She and the Captain arrived at pop stardom looking like they were already prepared for their lounge-act denoument, but (“Muskrat Love” aside) they really had it going there for awhile.
Lifton – One of the first songs I remember hearing. It was this, “Rhinestone Cowboy” (which we’ll be talking about next week), and “Have You Ever Been Mellow,” which I remember one of my sisters having the 45 of. It’s one of those that I really want to hate for so many reasons, most of all its intense whiteness. But damn, I love the chords on this – the way it rides the IV for four bars on “girl comes along / singing her song” the ascending chromatic of the next section, and the way it resolves on the last line of the verse. That’s classic pop songwriting and I don’t care who wrote it, I have to admire it.
Because it’s in the same key, when I was a solo acoustic act I used to throw in a verse of this in the middle of “Pump It Up” every once in a while. It usually got a pretty big laugh.
And just to correct Jack, Daryl and Toni weren’t the first to use the “taciturn musical mastermind and the big-voiced, theatrical frontperson” model. They stole it from Sonny and Cher.
Feerick - Yeah, but Sonny at least opened his mouth on occasion, and even was even known to change facial expression.
#16: B.J. Thomas, “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” – #1 U.S.; Thomas’s first chart-topper since 1969.
Feerick – Jesus, did we not get enough of this guy five-six years ago? Who, in 1975, was clamoring for B.J. Thomas to make a triumphant return?
That said, this isn’t terrible. Its sonic pleasures are modest — I like the out-of-tune upright piano—but it lacks the courage of its convictions. Instead of that weak, cheesy synthesizer solo, why not take that pedal steel that’s buried in the mix, and let him play a weeper of a lead? It’s a honky-tonk song, people — if you’re gonna do it, then do it one hundred per cent.
Dunphy - Mid-way through the Seventies, America gets another B.J. Show me that smile again…
Not terrible by the standards of Californi-ated Country, but it isn’t going to make you long for much like it. The best I can say is that it is pleasant, it is brief, and it is different from the other songs on the list, so good on you B.J. Thomas for not presenting a complete atrocity. Good on you.
Holmes - For a one-trick pony, Thomas’s trick is pretty decent. Not great, but decent.
Cummings - Fred Bronson awards the honor of “longest title of a #1 single” to Stars on 45, but we all know this song really earns it. Imagine being a DJ that spring, under pressure to get to the next commercial but needing to devote 10 seconds to back-tagging a B.J. Thomas hit. Fact: “Hey Won’t You Play” was Thomas’ first single for ABC Records after 19 on Scepter Records. Fact: Before it hit #1, Thomas hadn’t so much as sniffed the top 10 in 5 years, nor would he ever again. Questions: How much blow did ABC distribute to pop-radio programmers during the spring of 1975? Was a promise of such distribution written into Thomas’ contract? And did the COST of such distribution come out of Thomas’ royalties?
Lifton - Goddammit, another song about songs. It’s not horrible, but please make this trend stop.