Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 60
“This has to be the Very Most ’70s installment of this series — every track comes with an automatic feeling of pee-in-your-pants warmth or cringing disgust. (Usually both, simultaneously.) It feels like an After School Special.” – Jon Cummings
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#17: Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Sara Smile” – #4 U.S.
Dw. Dunphy - And so America begins its long love affair with Hall and Oates and Hall begins his long love affair with Hall. I kid, of course (but not by much). I find it incredibly difficult to say anything negative about the song; even if I was to attack it on some basis of being highly derivative in its blue-eyed soul construction, it is just too good. This has been a determination that only came to me in the past decade though. Hall and Oates had that awful distinction of being one of those acts you really liked, then hated because they felt so uncool and prone to mockery (and getting you mocked by your so-cool friends), only to swing back to full appreciation on the back end. I have that recent H&O box set and I’m constantly surprised by how I could have denied the inherent good stuff that is there.
Jon Cummings - It is a measure of my too-intense H&O fandom as a teenager — to which anyone from my high school will attest, with a mocking giggle — that I mostly think about “Sara Smile” in terms of my understanding of the actual relationship between Daryl, Sara Allen and her sister Janna. Otherwise, I tend to place “SS” among the duo’s other early Top 10s, “She’s Gone” and “Rich Girl,” and it always suffers in that context.
David Lifton - Minor keys and suspended chords in soul music? Pretty much unthinkable before Philly International. I prefer Hall & Oates here, as a soul band with pop leanings to what they would become a few years later, a pop band with soul leanings. But when you start off with something as incredible as the three singles Jon mentioned, you’re bound to go downhill.
Mike Heyliger - For my money, the best blue-eyed soul gets. I’m with Lifton, I dig H2O more as a soul band with pop/rock leanings than as a pop/rock band with soul leanings. This and “One On One” are musts for any slow-jam get-into-the-underpants mix.
Jack Feerick - I’m going to have to break with the consensus on this one. Soul music has got to have some grit in the mix — that’s what makes it work, the tension between tough and tender — but “Sara Smile” has no drive whatever. The falsetto, the languid rhythm section — it’s all just limp. (So is “One on One,” for that matter.) There’s no contrast. That’s why my favorite H&O stuff comes a little later period, when they added more rock and pop elements to the mix; for my money, even something like “Say It Isn’t So” has a lot more soul than this wet noodle of a song.
#18: Starland Vocal Band, “Afternoon Delight” – #1 U.S., #18 U.K.
Dunphy - Thousands of psychologists thank you, Starland Vocal Band, for traumatizing ’70s kids everywhere as they saw their parents singing along to this tune. In and of itself this is the most inane and innocuous kind of Seventies fluff, crossing the country and pop charts like illegals sneaking over the border from Quebec (what did you think I was going to say). Hard to hate outright musically but, (shivers), it conjures images of such grossness and ickiness that the visions overwhelm any sort of positive vibe you could attribute to it. It is the Marlboro Man with his massive mustache sneaking back to Mrs. Brady in the afternoon to “break into the Watergate.” Yuck.
Jason Hare - Love me some SVB. I still maintain that anybody who rips them a new one has not actually heard any song other than “Afternoon Delight.” Their first album is solid.
Feerick - I don’t believe you. It must be a trap.
Heyliger - I would be willing to bet that it, indeed, is a trap.
Jeff Giles - Jason’s actually serious in his praise for the Starland Vocal Band. I’m surprised you guys didn’t already know this about him.
Dunphy - But it looks like such a well-intentioned endorsement! How could it be a trap? Would it also be a trap if we posted some other songs from that album and allowed readers to listen? Huh? Would that make us complicit?!
Hare - I still have remorse over trashing their Christmas album.
Keith Creighton - I honestly thought “Afternoon Delight” was about going on a picnic and watching the 4th of July fireworks until some snarky comments on a VH1 clip show ruined everything for me.
Cummings - My refusal to include “AD” among the Worst Number One Songs of the ’70s (shameless plug) got me in hot water with some commenters five years ago, but I happily continue to admit that I vaguely dig it. I’m not going to defend it with the “too important to my childhood” argument that I offered up for some of the dippy shit of ’74 — but I don’t even find that necessary in this case. The harmonies here are super-sweet, the loping acoustic-guitar pace gave it a nice little vibe amidst its discofied surroundings on the radio … and the sound of the “skyrockets in flight” was, to my 10-year-old ears, among the spaciest sounds on the radio in ’76. (We discussed the very-spaciest of those sounds a couple weeks ago with “Dream Weaver.”) I will note, however, that I never saw visual footage of those SVB goobers singing the song until years later; if I had, I probably would have felt entirely differently about all this.
Lifton – While I don’t like this song I don’t get the idea that this the track that defines the awfulness of the 1970s. That’s somewhat lazy and it implies that there haven’t been far worse #1 songs released since then.
And yes, Jason’s love of Starland Vocal Band is genuine, as anybody who heard the first podcast we did together can testify. We were so much nicer to each other back then.
Heyliger - I just find this song silly. Tons of songs were shrouded in innuendo at that time. I think what separates this song from the others is a) the fact that the Starland Vocal Band won the friggin’ Best New Artist Grammy and b) they’re not sexy enough to be singing a song about having sex in the afternoon. But then, the freakiest people are generally the ones you least suspect…
Feerick – I can’t listen to this song without imaging Jason Hare’s parents having sex.
“My motto’s always been, ‘When it’s right, it’s right.’”
Yeah? Well, my motto’s always been, When it’s wrong, it’s wrong — and it don’t get wronger than that.
#19: John Sebastian, “Welcome Back” – #1 U.S.
Dunphy - This is also kind of yuck but, thankfully, this song actually manages to survive as a song and not strictly a TV show theme regurgitated for the sake of milking a phenomenon dry (“Theme From Happy Days”). Most of my gag reflex from this comes from the reaction I get to John Sebastian. I’m sure he’s a nice guy. As a matter of fact, I almost guarantee it and that constant hippy-dippy pleasantness just cheeses me off to no end. He strikes me as the kind of fella that dots his “I’s with hearts just to make you feel cosmic and groovy, and I just can’t relate. None of that comes through in the song “Welcome Back,” but I can’t put my bias past myself so, yeah, to heck with this song.
I’m trying to think…what was the last TV theme song to cross over to pop charts? Would that have been “I’ll Be There For You” from Friends, or has there been anything more recent?
Giles - Didn’t Sebastian quit trying to be a pop star and use his mountains of publishing royalties to fund his career as a latter-day jug band bluesman? It’s hard not to respect that.
Cummings - Sebastian actually did a decent job of fleshing out the one-verse opening-credits theme and making “Welcome Back” a song worth listening to for two minutes. It’s difficult to fault the synergistic brilliance of putting TV themes (or movie soundtrack anthems, for that matter) on pop radio. Just to jog the memories of those ancient enough to remember, Kotter followed Happy Days on Tuesdays during its first months on the air, then moved to Thursdays in January of ’76, where it preceded Barney Miller in ABC’s lineup.
Oh, and I think Dw. is correct that “I’ll Be There for You” was the last BIG TV-theme hit, though afterward there were songs that were re-purposed as themes and then became hits (the BoDeans’ “Closer to Free” from Party of Five and Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” from Dawson’s Creek spring to mind). Apart from that, Seinfeld (with its utter lack of an opening-credits theme) is generally thought to have killed off the TV-theme hit, as it ushered in a new era of shorter credits. Nowadays, a song is more likely to become popular thanks to placement within an episode. I, for one, miss the soundtrack single and the TV theme — and I miss Mike Post beyond reason.
Lifton - God, I loved this show as a kid, so this also had to be one of my first favorite songs. I agree with Jon that Sebastian did a good job with filling it out beyond the credits. It helps that the concept of the show – a guy returning to his roots – lends itself better to a second verse than “Happy Days” or “Cheers,” but it also helps that they got Sebastian instead of some nameless hacks.
Heyliger - This song makes me wish I’d held on to my Welcome Back, Kotter lunchbox. Up your nose with a rubber hose!!
Cummings - I wonder what my 45 of Gabe Kaplan’s “Up Your Nose” (which charted at a scintillating #91) is worth today? $6 and a migraine if I bothered to listen to it, I’d guess…
Creighton - Gabe Kaplan 45? That’s awesome.
I keep waiting in vain for the following 45′s to go up in value:
“Who Shot JR?”
“Pac Man Fever”
“All I Have To Do Is Dream” (Andy Gibb & Victoria Principal)
and a Burger King promo featuring England Dan and John Ford Coley, Firefall and ABBA.
David Medsker - Anyone remember those 45s like the Jaws one where they’d ask questions and answer them with a snippet of a song?
Lifton - Yeah. Dickie Goodman.
Cummings - I’ve mentioned “Mr. Jaws” a couple times the last few weeks, when we’ve covered songs that were snippetized by the Dickster.
Feerick – God, I was getting tired of John Sebastian, like, eight years and 32 installments of this column ago.
Anyway, the other problem with TV themes as pop singles is that the lyrics can tie the song so strongly to the source property that it’s impossible to enjoy the thing on its own. Now, “Welcome Back” is no “Ballad of Gilligan’s Island,” or even the story of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls. And if you’ve never seen Welcome Back, Kotter then I envy you you might not catch the references in the lyrics. If you have, though, they are both inescapable and groan-worthy.
You know, ever since I found out that the Smithereens song “A Girl Like You” was written for the movie Say Anything — and rejected by director Cameron Crowe for being too on-the-nose — I can hardly stand to listen to it. Same thing here.
And Sebastian keeps switching from addressing his subject directly (“Your dreams were your ticket out…”) to talking about him in the third person (“We tease him a lot…”), which drives me crazy. Consistent point of view, people!
#20: Captain & Tennille, “Muskrat Love” – #4 U.S.
Dunphy - We’ve used this song as the ugly stick by which this entire series has been measured, and no wonder. This is the dumbest, most bloodless, most mellow, least coherent song I could think of at any given moment. It is the response in the word association game to “sucks,” “crap,” “useless,” “boring,” “idiotic,” and so forth. It is impossible for me to believe drug abuse in America is worse today than it was in 1976, because you’d have to be high off your ass to think this was worth your time or money.
Creighton - Granted, like many young impressionable youth, the Captain & Tennille had me diving deep into the red “M” World Book at the school library to research muskrat mating habits.
Cummings - Actual radio programming from December 1976:
DJ, WJJJ-AM, CHRISTIANSBURG, VA: All right, we’re still taking your calls. What was your favorite song this year, and what was the worst? You’re on the line!
10-YEAR-OLD JON: Hi! The best song of the year was “I’m Your Boogie Man.”
DJ: And the worst?
JON: (icky voice) “Muskrat Love”!
DJ: Hard to argue with that. Thanks for calling, but I have one more question…
DJ: Are you a boy or a girl?
PRE-VOICE-CHANGE JON: I’m a BOY!
Lifton - I have no time for this shit.
Heyliger - I find Toni Tennille’s voice weirdly sensual. That said, a song about muskrats mating? Kinda gross. There is no good reason on Earth for me to like this song…but I do. Sue me.
Feerick - I can’t hear this song without thinking of this clip from Kids Are People Too!, where Daryl and Toni perform the song along with a dorky teenage cover band. The kids are clearly jazzed to be performing with their heroes — until Daryl gets impatient with how the (very nervous) kid keyboardist is playing the solo, and totally bum-rushes him.
Dick move, Dragon.
#21: Seals & Crofts, “Get Closer” – #6 U.S.; features vocals from Carolyn Willis of Honey Cone.
Dunphy - I’ve been kind to Seals & Crofts through AM Gold’s run; much kinder than I thought I would be. And I’m doing it again. This is a genuinely good song. This song deserved to be a hit, even if it is still far too mellow and too gentle for my acerbic and angst-ridden tastes, and it beats “Muskrat Love” into a stinky pile of roadkill by comparison.
Cummings - For me, this is really high up there on the list of best AC songs of the ’70s. I think it’s the little touches of drama created by the momentary stops-and-starts, by the way they hit (and add the little cymbal taps on) the D’s in “Darlin’,” and by the key change, which is a classic. S&C, like ‘em or not, were really good at tossing those sorts of elements into their songs. Also, the melody on the vocal bridges just makes me euphoric.
Lifton - It’s strange that I remember the chorus more than the verses because they’re so much more interesting musically. Maybe it’s the Fender Rhodes, making this one of the purest mellow gold songs ever.
Heyliger - First time I’ve ever heard this. Eh…
Medsker - There is something in the pre-chorus of “Get Closer” that makes my mind swerve into “Don’t Look Back” by Boston. Anyone else hear a similar chord sequence between them?
Feerick - I will always admire songwriters who can distill complicated emotional states or relationships into a pithy hook-line. I’ve been in the situation of “Get Closer” — the stunted relationship with the person who never communicates with you except to say, “We never talk anymore” — and it is crazy-making. Seals and Crofts nail it in very few words, and with a big, sweeping tune to boot. Winner of the week.
#22: The Manhattans, “Kiss and Say Goodbye” – #1 U.S., #4 U.K.
Dunphy - This and “Sara Smile” are, for me, the top two songs of the week even though the opening monologue is ridiculous. Matter of fact, I can’t think off the top of my head of an opening monologue that isn’t ridiculous. But once you get past the dopey alibi that starts this thing off, the song is pretty darn great.
Cummings - Holy crap, Dw.! This is the Best. Spoken-Word Intro. EVER! “Because of my obligations … and the ties that you have…” The spine tingles. It barely qualifies as an “intro” — the majority of the song’s substance is right there in the basso rambling, and much of the rest of the song just vamps on the spoken-word stuff. I was thinking back to our write-up of “Me and Mrs. Jones” a number of weeks back, when I noted my sense of the insufficient emotional consequences of cheating expressed in that song, and concluded by saying, “You can keep this, and instead give me ‘Kiss and Say Goodbye.’” I looked back to that column and noticed that this week is the second time that a Seals and Crofts song has been followed by a chart-topping soul song about cheatin’. AM Gold compilers, are you trying to tell us something about S&C with your sequencing habits?
Dunphy - I’ll never be able to love the spoken intro without cynicism. Can’t do it. But man, some of the newest songs out there sure could stand an opening monologue, just to let the listener know what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into.
Feerick - See, I think that, in order to work properly, a spoken-word intro needs to be a little bit ridiculous. There’s a saying in musical theater that when the emotion becomes too strong for speech, you sing. (And when the emotion becomes too strong for song, you dance; but that’s for another time.) If you start a song with speech, the arc must build to a point where mere words ill no longer do the job.
So it’s entirely fitting that the intro to “Kiss and Say Goodbye” becomes a little lame and evasive — you can hear the brave and noble front collapsing, excuses and justifications falling apart, growing inadequate in the face of the shame and loss the narrator is suffering, until the only thing left for him is to open his throat and let the aching out. It hardly even matters what lyrics he’s singing — it is the very act of song, and the undisguised hurt in his voice, that tells the whole story.
Lifton - It goes for Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes (it was recorded with MFSB at Sigma Sound Studios) but misses. That doesn’t make it a bad song, just not up to the level of Gamble & Huff.
Heyliger - The Manhattans were definitely on the “C” list as far as soul groups of the Seventies go. They really only had a handful of good singles, and this was he pinnacle. The spoken intro makes me giggle–there’s definitely some Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes aping here (listen to “I Miss You” for proof,) but…the Blue Notes had Teddy Pendergrass and the Manhattans had Gerald Alston. That pretty much says it all.