Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 59
There’s only one way to truly appreciate this week’s AM Gold: 1976 entries, and that’s to listen once again to the famous Casey Kasem rant inspired by Henry Gross. RIP Snuggles.
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#11: Eric Carmen, “All By Myself” – #2 U.S., #12 U.K.
Dw. Dunphy - The first of two Eric Carmen hits based on Rachmaninoff compositions, this is a mopey kind of song that still manages to be pretty good. It also bears a striking resemblance to label-mate Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” so there was an awful lot of balladeering and philandering happening out at Arista Records.
Jon Cummings - Dw, don’t forget that the biggest artist on Arista during the mid-to-late ’70s was Barry Manilow — who, shockingly enough, has never seen fit to cover this song, not on his Greatest Songs of the ’70s album or his Greatest Love Songs of All Time album or his (actually not terrible) Summer of ’78 album (which didn’t limit itself to songs from that year). PLEASE don’t ask me how I know about all those albums. Anyway, this is another song that was diva-ized during the ’90s, this time by Celine Dion. And as Mariah Carey did with Nilsson’s “Without You,” which we covered several weeks ago, Celine used the song to show off her range and get an easy hit, but drained it of the idiosyncrasies the original vocalist had brought to it. In Carmen’s case it’s that ineffable WHINE — that whine that, for me, was like catnip through about a minute and a half of each of his hits, but which eventually sent me diving for the radio dial to change the station.
Jack Feerick - Remember back in ‘72, talking about Harry Nilsson, where I was a little dubious about “Without You,” because it was so gorgeously miserable that it felt like Harry was brushing, ever so gingerly, up against the edge of parody? Carmen crashes through the guardrail and over the cliff, on fire.
Chris Holmes - I put off exploring the music of The Raspberries for years because of this maudlin, steaming pile.
Dunphy - It may be maudlin but I’d take it over “Feelings” (whoa, whoa, whoa) any day.
#12: KC and the Sunshine Band, “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” – #1 U.S., #22 U.K.; the group’s third Stateside #1.
Dunphy - I think I’ve been mostly fair and accepting of Mr. Casey in previous AM Gold outings, but clearly this is the moment in the Schroedinger’s Cat experiment where you learn you’re in the dimension where the cat is dead. This is not much more than a rewrite of “That’s The Way I Like It” missing the fun, strangling the groove, and providing one of disco’s laziest moments. And I have to tell you, “booty” is just one of the dumbest slang terms ever to dump out into vox populi. If we’re judging worst song of the week, this is neck and neck with a track down below, but for much different reasons. This is just a dumb, cynical song that farts in the face of the audience and tells them it is fresh bread.
Cummings- I gotta disagree with Dw on this one. Yes, “Shake Your Booty” is something of a knockoff of previous K.C. hits, but for me it’s the rare knockoff that improves on the originals. It dials down the incessance (is that even a word?) of the vocals on “That’s the Way” just a little bit, while offering up a succinct and instantly memorable horn riff. Let’s face a fact here: EVERY K.C. dance song was pretty much the same song, with only slight tinkering around the edges. And while “Shake Your Booty” isn’t my favorite Sunshine song — that would be “I’m Your Boogie Man” — I’d always rather hear it than the two singles from ’75 that probably remain most identified with the band.
Feerick - And the hits just keep on coming! This is a neat, precise bit of songcraft. Jon is right in that it’s all about the horn riff; diddle-dit diddle-diddle dee dahh. The entire piece is built around variations on that single harmonic figure, that little rhythmic gesture. Resolve it to the high note, resolve it to the low note, transpose it up a step, bring it back to the tonic. Mozart would compose an entire chamber pieces out of little five-note melodies answering each other, and you would wonder at the complexity of it even as the mechanics were completely transparent. The Sunshine Band is doing something similar here — obviously on a level of complexity orders lesser than Mozart, but it’s still elegant how they make something out of (nearly) nothing. It’s like a magfic act in reverse; you can see exactly how they’re doing it, and if anything that makes the trick more impressive.
Dunphy - I like that you have just measured “Shake Your Booty” against Mozart, but that’s all I like about “Shake Your Booty.”
#13: Maxine Nightingale, “Right Back Where We Started From” – #2 U.S., #8 U.K.
Dunphy - I know a lot of Popdosers don’t care for this song at all, but it always hit a sweet spot for me. I wouldn’t say it has a “groove,” as the primary melody seemed somewhat rigid and regimented, yet it has a locking hook, like a high school cheer.
Cummings - Here is a hook in search of a song, and never quite finding one — though it’s rather wonderful despite its seeming lack of thought that followed the composer’s initial inspiration. (Honestly, is it possible for a song to say LESS
than this one does in two verses and a chorus?) It does proceed like a piledriver across the radio, relentlessly cheerful and allowing little room for nuance. And it winds up being remarkably ingratiating. Chart trivia: “Right Back Where We Started From” spent four weeks at number 2 on the Hot 100, but after settling in behind “Disco Lady” for a couple weeks it was leapfrogged by two other singles on their way to the top: “Let Your Love Flow” and “Welcome Back.” That’s a rare (lack of) achievement for a #2 hit.
Feerick – I’m always impressed by how quickly rock music became an institution, and how it forged its own complicated relationship with its past. Remember, in 1976 we’re only 25 years out from “Rocket 88” — a single generation. And rock ‘n’ roll already looks like a cultural movement that has matured to its peak and is on the downward slide. On the one hand, there’s a baroque degeneracy of a culture in decline — the musical and conceptual excesses of prog, for instance, or the lifestyle excesses of the cocaine-cowboy set — and on the other hand, the reformers were gathering steam, rejecting the received values of the music business and preparing to unleash the cleansing fires of punk. (Disco, which seemed at the time like a symptom of degeneracy, belongs in hindsight to the reformist wing.)
Occupying the middle ground, there was a sizable contingent bent on strip-mining the past — trying to recapture the excitement of the early rock ’n’ roll scene by recreating its sounds and forms. “Right Back Where We Started From” speaks the language of pop in a dialect that Fats Domino would recognize as his own, trying to forge a way forward via nostalgia. It’s entertaining enough, but it’s essentially a blind alley — there was nowhere to go after this; you can’t build the future by recreating the past.
#14: Fleetwood Mac, “Say You Love Me” – #11 U.S., #40 U.K.
Dunphy - The end of the Mac as a blues-rock entity (even though they hadn’t really been as such during the Bob Welch years) “Say You Love Me” along with “Rhiannon” saw the band move drastically from the control of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie to newcomers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Better still, Christine McVie was becoming ever more prominent, and this track finally lets her loose in a way she’d only hinted at previously (say on “Come A Little Bit Closer” from Heroes Are Hard To Find, for example). It all came together on the band’s 1970s self-titled album (as opposed to the 1960′s self-titled album) and leads one to believe that all you need to do is get the right people in a single space to make great things happen.
The funniest thing about this, to me at least, is that the band Fleetwood Mac was initially not in those members’ control either. Rumor (rumour?) has it that Peter Green’s sense of humor (humour?) was sufficiently warped enough that when he formed his blues-rock combo in the previous decade, he took his Bluesbreaker bandmates names for his own and they hadn’t even been members of that band yet! This is, of course, pop apocrypha and I encourage everyone to set the record straight here and now, but it then comes as no surprise that Buckingham and Nicks (and in a sense Christine McVie too) would find themselves “leading” the band.
Cummings - It’s funny that the Fleetwood Mac songs that most blatantly scream “’70s L.A. Jet-Set Pop!” were all written and sung by a Brit who can’t stand to fly. I’m always torn by “Say You Love Me,” as well as “Over My Head.” They’re both nice tunes, but their blandness and, let’s face it, monotony usually send me off in search of something with more of an edge.
Feerick - Now, I love the post-Bob Welch Mac, but I’ve got to come clean — I’m a Lindsey Buckingham partisan. He had (and has) the uncanny ability to create songs that go down smooth as pudding, but have all kinds of spiky undercurrents. With Christine McVie, though, what you hear is what you get — it’s all just as sweetly bland as tapioca. It works in the context of the albums, where her songs act as relief amidst the more emotionally-intense songs of Buckingham and Nicks; but on their own, her tunes are just featherweight. The country lope of the rhythm section, and the twang of the banjo, lend it a little bit of bounce, but there’s not a lot here to latch onto.
#15: Henry Gross, “Shannon” – #6 U.S., #32 U.K.; this was the song that someone requested on American Top 40 that sent Casey Kasem on his famous tirade.
Medsker - The long distance dedication about the dog named Snuggles? I just want to know what pictures he was expecting to receive.
Dunphy - This is a beautiful, gorgeous song musically. Had it been about a woman and a love affair gone wrong, it would have been a standard for the ages. But because it is about Dennis Wilson’s dog (or was it Carl Wilson’s dog?) it becomes a really poorly thought-out greeting card of a track. And while Casey “Mr. Sunshine Voice” Kasem reveals himself to be quite the vicious little gerbil because of this track’s acceptance in the pop music world, I’m not sure I can blame him entirely for being an a-hole. How DO you segue gently into and out from a song about someone’s dead dog?
This is, of course, the other pretty bad song of the week only it is not cynical at all. If anything, it is way too earnest and sentimental and takes to task the notion of writing what you know. This song is not a fart in the face, but certainly a wet, slobbery lick upside the face with the faintest whiff of another dog’s bunghole on it.
Cummings - “Shannon” was not a big hit locally where I grew up, and it preceded by a few months the beginning of my youthful obsession with “American Top 40,” so I rarely heard it until much later. In any case, like most radio-listening kids (one would imagine), I had no idea it was about a dog … much less a Beach Boy’s dog. So “Shannon” played (and still plays, for those oblivious to its genesis) as a bizarre jumble of emotions and images. Clearly it seemed to be about a death, but not necessarily — it could also track as a story about a runaway sister (or dog), right? The dichotomy of “drifting out to sea” and “in our backyard” always perplexed me, though it makes more sense when one imagines the “shady tree” having dog-piss stains at the base of the trunk. Let’s give “Shannon” at least one thing: It’s a maudlin mess, but as maudlin-mess ’70s story songs go, it was a LOT better than what David Geddes was up to with “Run Joey Run” and “Blind Man in the Bleachers.”
Feerick - You mean I was getting all worked up about a dog? Jesus. It’s like a bad joke.
Interesting to note, though, that big chunk of the pop universe of 1976 still revolved around the Beach Boys and their associated acts (See also: Captain & Tennille).
#16: Firefall, “You Are the Woman” – #9 U.S.
Dunphy - Has there ever been a better popular music decade for makers of the flute than the 1970s? Setting aside Jethro Tull, you had this song, Nicollette Larson doing “Lotta Love,” Herbie Mann’s “Orient Express,” Marshall Tucker Band’s “Heard It In A Love Song,” and I don’t know how many other instances of the music charts just blowing ad blowing and blowing. (Actually, this song isn’t all that bad.)
Cummings - Following our discussion of “Still the One” a week or two ago — and my assertion that Orleans and Firefall are basically interchangeable — my wife and I were driving a few days ago when “You Are the Woman” came on the radio, and (not having read my comments) she looked at me and said, “Ummm … Firefall or Orleans?” And I just said, “Exactly.” This is a perfectly innocuous song, but if I’m gonna listen to Firefall, give me one of those songs with a darker edge — “Strange Way” or “Headed for a Fall” or even “Goodbye I Love You.”
Feerick - Somewhere, there’s a black metal band that wants their name back.