Perhaps it’s not coincidental that as America celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976 and looked fondly to its past, two of the biggest hits in the country that year were the theme song to a show about the 1950s and a retro disco number from a band recalling a fond night more than a decade earlier.
Or maybe it is a coincidence. Who can say for sure? Anyway, here’s the first installment of our look at AM Gold: 1976.
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#1: Pratt & McClain with Brother Love, “Happy Days” – #5 U.S., #31 U.K.
Jon Cummings - As a HUGE Happy Days fan when I was 10, it drove me bonkers that by the time they issued this single, the show’s credits had already incorporated a new & improved version of the theme song. I hated the “won’t you be mine” business, which (if I remember correctly) was never part of the credits song. But I was a fan, so I bought the single anyway — and then noticed that it was the first 45 I had purchased that clocked in at under 2 minutes.
Dw. Dunphy - This is a TV show theme song in the classic sense of it, so maybe the ’70s were even more a forgiving time than I thought, but I would think it would be incredibly awkward “rocking and rolling all week long” with this blasting out of your manual transmission, wood-paneled station wagon with the “Keep On Truckin’” bumper sticker on it. I know we’re a much more guarded and jaded society than were once were, and we could expect people to think us odd for jamming out the How I Met Your Mother theme as we were cruising the town, so thinking that a song that is so clearly a bi-product of something else could not only make it onto the charts but be a hit is perplexing.
And it’s not even that good.
Feerick - There’s an essential pitfall to cross-marketing TV themes as pop singles, and since (SPOILER ALERT, I guess) this will be coming up a bunch of times in the last years of the AM Gold series, I’m going to lay the thing out right here so as to avoid repeating myself later.
I mean, it seems like a no-brainer, because music = music, right? But the radio version of a TV theme hardly ever actually adds anything to the experience of the song except for an extra two minutes of length. (The sole exception being Paul William’s theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the other verse of which — unheard on TV — sets up a melancholy mood before exploding into the redemptive optimism of the closer. But I digress.) Brevity is the soul of wit, especially in pop music, and sometimes sixty seconds is exactly the right length for a song. The radio version of a TV theme, more often than not, translates not as “Hey! More of a good thing!” but rather as “One minute’s worth of hooks stretched thin over a three-minute frame.”
Such is the case with “Happy Days.” Two verses of this flapdoodle, heard once a week, was perfectly agreeable. The additional verses fail to improve it, or to justify the additional investment of time.
In any case, “Happy Days” was never going to be a favorite of mine, as it is so patently bogus. This is satin-jacket showband Fifties-revival stuff, Sha Na Na Lite, the soundtrack for the Original Cruisin’ Nite at Jimmy’s Diner. Even at the time, I knew this second-best. In its first season, remember, Happy Days used “Rock Around the Clock” as its theme song, and that tune was still smokin’. To go from the mighty Bill Haley to, well, this… it’s like trying to pass off Budweiser as bourbon.
Lifton - I’m with Jack’s entire sentiment, but I’ll also add that Hüsker Dü did the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme better.
Mike Heyliger - As did Joan Jett.
#2: Bay City Rollers, “Saturday Night” – #1 U.S.
Cummings - In which our heroes, having gone through their famous self-naming via sticking a pin in a map, pass themselves off as the teenyboppers’ equivalent of Sweet. Rather irresistibly.
Dunphy - A song that has come to be kind of a joke in its following decades, there’s nothing altogether wrong about “Saturday Night.” This is fluffy and harmless, squeaky-clean and sanitized glam for Saturday Morning kinds of people with roller skates, not Saturday Night kinds of people with freaky fetishes. (The Bay City Rollers were, of course, as far from San Francisco as the U.K. band could have possibly gotten, but they DID have a Saturday morning kids show, I think on CBS, for one season — further proof that the 1970s audience would take absolutely anything they were given.)
Feerick – What’s great about listening to music at a remove of many years is that contemporary concerns — like the “credibility” of the artists involved — fade away, and we can consider the music on its own merits. Example: the Undertones were hip, beloved, and critically acclaimed, and “Teenage Kicks” is an undisputed pop classic. The Bay City Rollers were none of these things, and “Saturday Night” was largely hated by many of the same people who would be creaming their jeans over “Teenage Kicks” just a couple of year later.
Listening today, without the distraction of who is “fake” and who is “for real” (as if those terms could ever have any absolute meaning, in the shotgun marriage of art and commerce that is pop music), it’s obvious not only that both a great songs, but that both are essentially the same great song — each one a perfect slice of Big Pop Fun, winningly goofy, knowingly dumb, endearing and exuberant. Together, they would be the perfect double A-side summer single.
Lifton - One of my sisters loved this. I’m pretty sure I mainly dug the stuttering, which would prove much more effective in my life years later when I discovered The Who. Now I hear it and realize that it’s the high-strung acoustic that makes the track.
#3: Peter Frampton, “Show Me the Way” – #6 U.S., #10 U.K.; the first of three Top 20 U.S. singles from Frampton Comes Alive!
Cummings - For me, the entire Frampton Comes Alive! enterprise has been hopelessly cheapened by Will to Power, Lisa Bonet in High Fidelity, and every other ubiquitous cover version of “Baby I Love Your Way.” And I could probably live my entire life without ever hearing a vocoder again. Still, of the three singles from the album, this is the only one I can still stand to listen to.
Dunphy - One more sliver of evidence for the madness of the 1970s — prior to his fair-to-middling solo career at that stage, Frampton was a member of Humble Pie, a band that was not a mega-selling unit either. That the Frampton Comes Alive! album should skyrocket to the unprecedented success it had (I think it is still the #1 live album of all time), spawned honest-to-God hit songs, and make PF a superstar could not have been predicted by anyone. Now, do I need to hear the “talk-box” guitar ever again? Not really, but “Show Me The Way” is prime pop chart material. It is custom-made for air conditioned pizza parlor jukeboxes on humid summer days.
Feerick - Wayne’s World was not a film for the ages, but there was one joke that rang like crystal truth; if you grew up in the suburbs, it seems like your household was issued a copy of Frampton Comes Alive! by mail. (That, and Steve Miller’s Book of Dreams. But, again, I digress.)
What’s cool about Comes Alive is how live it actually is. There was precious little studio sweetening going on, and the instrumentation was pretty sparse. Frampton can only play lead lines, since he’s tethered to his talkbox; Bob Mayo is carrying the whole thing on that slightly-out-of-tune 12-string; the backing vocals are a little raggedy, and Frampton is practically incoherent — you can hear him fuck up the words, and almost dissolve into embarrassed laughter. That’s what makes it live, not the screams of the fans. It sounds like a good, tight four-piece bar band on a hot night, and I mean that as a compliment of the highest order.
Lifton - This song should be subtitled (How A Talkbox And Long Blonde Hair Can Hide Mediocrity And Save A Middling Career).
#4: Orleans, “Still the One” – #5 U.S.; the group’s highest-charting U.S. single.
Cummings - I don’t see how Congressman Hall ever lost an election, considering the monetary advantage he must have maintained over his opponents based only on royalties from commercial use of this song. The proceeds this tune must have raked in over the years must be astronomical. Its continual presence in our lives renders any attempts at real analysis meaningless, right? Anyway, I will say this: The opening guitar riff promises far more than the song ever delivers, musically speaking.
Dunphy - This is a pretty song that I, nonetheless, loathe. Like Kool And The Gang’s “Celebration” it is jerked out reflexively by ad agencies to fill a sonic void in their commercials, and has come to represent total meaningless beyond whatever product it intends to sell, which is a pity. The harmonies are very nice. The guitars are better than functional, and there is the sense that the tune was written and recorded with a degree of earnest sincerity. Too bad that you can also be that sincere about television networks, hair coloring, and peanut butter.
Feerick - No laughs, no tears, nothing to get excited about either way — just a song that was always there. Next!
Lifton - I remember ABC used this that year in promoting their shows, which was how I had first heard it. When it would come on the radio, I always used to think it was a commercial for ABC. This is nothing special, but I prefer it to Shania Twain’s re-write. If only she had tried to re-create the album cover…
Dunphy -So I’ll just assume you don’t mean you want to see Shania Twain sporting a mountain man beard.
Feerick – Is that what you kids are calling it these days?
#5: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” – #1 U.S. and U.K.
Cummings - Has there ever been such a perfect record to summarize the second act in a band’s career? Simultaneously current and nostalgic, it was such radio catnip that it charted twice nearly 20 years apart — and would probably chart again today if somebody did the right remix.
Dunphy - So hard to hate but so hard to love. More than a decade after its arrival, this was still a staple of the prom DJ’s set and may still be today. It is, by far, one of the Four Seasons’ most enjoyable songs and clearly identified where Valli would be heading afterward with his Grease soundtrack contribution. It is a fun disco tune. Yet, like “Still The One” its ubiquity in pop culture calls out individuals for not really trying too hard. Why try to find deeper cuts to get the butts off the seats and onto the floor when you can just slap this chestnut on and take a bathroom break?
Feerick - And the improbable Frankie Valli revival continues apace. Way back when we were discussing “Rag Doll” – back in ‘64, not ‘63 – I admitted that I found Valli’s voice pretty hard to take, but I admired the craft and the arrangement of the song. That still holds. “Oh What a Night” isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s got more hooks than Izaak Walton’s tacklebox, and it moves through its several modes — doo-wop breakdown, lite-funk groove, analog-synth bridge — in a calculatedly pleasing way. It’s not the medicine to soothe my soul, but at least it goes down easy.
Dunphy - Holy crap; when was Stephen Bishop’s “On And On” released?
Cummings - May ’77.
Dunphy - How in the world did AM Gold not get THAT?
Lifton - I’m pretty sure I learned what sex was from this song. I haven’t really learned much more since. Ended much too soon, indeed…