Although it’s been some time before the late Hal David’s work appeared in this column, we’d be remiss if we didn’t note his passing and acknowledge once again what a huge impact he and Burt Bacharach had on American pop music. Hell, the AM Gold discs covering the ’60s could just as easily have been titled Bacharach/David Gold.
Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#1: Fleetwood Mac, “Don’t Stop” – #3 U.S., #32 U.K.
Jon Cummings - Until sometime around … let’s see, when was it … oh, right, the summer of 1992, this song was fondly (if vaguely) remembered as the third single off Rumours – the single that followed two pretty iconic hits in “Go Your Own Way” and “Dreams,” but wasn’t itself iconic in any way. It didn’t really fit in with the legend of Rumours – the breakups, the affairs, the studio tension that resulted in the biggest-selling album ever to that time. It was just another Christine McVie contribution to the stable of hits, steady and AC-rockin’ and relentless in its positivity. But then, suddenly, it became iconic — in fact, it became the theme song for baby-boom progressiveness. And it has retained that newfound power for a generation now, so that whenever it comes on the radio we liberals caterwaul at the top of our lungs and regale our children with stories of how Bill Clinton talked about a place called hope, the song played and Tipper clapped, Ross Perot dropped out, Clinton surged into the lead, and Bush the First was toast. Don’t we?
Dw. Dunphy - I like this song but I have to admit it has lost a bit of it’s intensity over the years. It happened before Bill and Hillary made it their theme song (and don’t get me started about how Tipper Gore fell in line with that ragged bunch of coke fiends after all the PMRC grandstanding a few years earlier…you think she and Al finally divorced because he wanted to tap some o’dat inconvenient Stevie Nicks truth? Wait, that makes no sense whatsoever. Inner monologue, are you getting enough oxygen?
I can’t adequately peg why I don’t feel the same way for “Don’t Stop” when my devotion to “Go Your Own Way” remains undiminished…except that maybe my cynicism just cannot hope to believe tomorrow’s going to be anything other than more of the same. That is more a reflection of me than of the song itself, but I think most of my generation agrees our optimism hasn’t been what it used to be, and songs that purport a brighter day comin’ leave us wondering what you actually want us to buy.
David Lifton - Overplaying and post-Clinton disillusion be damned, I still love this. If there’s one thing to not like, it’s that the rhythm track is a little clunky for a blues shuffle. Maybe the hooks at the end (the breakdown on “It’ll soon be here,” the “Ooh, don’t you look back” in the fade-out) are kind of slick and professional, but to me that’s perfect pop songwriting. McCartney was the best at tossing out little things like that at the end. And Lindsay’s solo is gorgeous, too.
Jack Feerick - Another one that has become nearly impossible to assess on its own, as a song, rather than as a cultural signifier. But I’ll try.
I’m old enough to remember when this was just a Fleetwood Mac song, and even then it was never one of my favorites. I like that the blues roots of the Mac still show in the chugging groove, and in Lindsay’s tough little guitar solo — how does he get that B.B. King tone out of that weird-ass custom axe of his? — but that’s about all I like. The keyboards are too much fairy dust, not enough barrelhouse. At the risk of repeating myself; the Mac were a great album band, and the moments that work in the context of the whole — the sunny patches in the generally-heavy emotional weather — just don’t do much for me on their own.
Brian Boone - In junior high, we sang “Don’t Stop” as “don’t stop / talking about your butthole.” Classic.
#2: Linda Ronstadt, “It’s So Easy” – #5 U.S.
Cummings - This was La Ronstadt being La Lazy, taking yet one more Buddy Holly hit and putting one more chunk-a-chunk LA-country rhythm track behind it and laying down one more vocal with no feeling whatsoever. And because we were too bored to notice how boring it was, it top-fived. Shame on us.
Dunphy - Pleasant but pale. Ronstadt was, in my opinion, the most transparent of her musical phases. If she was covering Buddy Holly, she was going to do it a lot. If she was going into an American Songbook phase with Nelson Riddle, one album would never suffice. A couple canciones is never enough, and so forth. But like her Songbook soulmate Rod Stewart, she never was best known as a songwriter, but as an interpreter of other songwriters, so even though this song survives with no overwhelming reason for existing, it remains amiably workmanlike. It is mechanically “Glee”esque.
Lifton - Speaking of clunky rhythm tracks…
Feerick - That little tough-chick growl that Linda assays here is surely her most embarrassing moment of the ’70s.
Cummings - I think we should concede the fact that, while it was released in January ’80, “How Do I Make You” was recorded sometime in ’79, and say that THAT was Linda’s most embarrassing moment of the decade. A failed audition for the Runaways (in my imagination, at least), in which the growl became a screech.
I feel a need to give Linda some credit here: The Simple Dreams album, though its top-5 cover hits (“It’s So Easy” and “Blue Bayou”) were pedestrian at best, did also produce her wonderful version of ”Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” a song which the vast majority of folks would never have heard if it weren’t for her, and a lovely cover of the Carter Family’s “I Never Will Marry.” (Her version of “Tumbling Dice” is another matter; I liked it as a kid until I heard the original, at which point there’s no turning back.)
Cummings - Marge, I believe that young man just sang “bitch” on the radio. What’s this world coming to?
Dunphy - This song is schizoid. I believe that’s a Fender Rhodes playing, right? When you first hear that, and the guitar count-in after that first pass at the anti-chorus (or whatever you call it when the chorus takes the place ordinarily structured for the verse), you’re thinking this isn’t going to be as soulful as it winds up becoming. But it does.
And the term “bitch” was getting quite a workout in the mid-70s and early-80s between H2O, Elton John and the Rolling Stones. They were keeping that particular lamp trimmed and burning for gangsta rap, just a decade or so away…but not really.
Cummings - Well, Elton was calling himself a bitch, best as I can tell. Meanwhile, Daryl was careful to sing only “It’s a bitch, girl” right up until the very end, when, on the fadeout, he finally sang, “Oh, you’re a rich, rich bitch, girl.” I wonder how many radio stations made absolutely sure to have the DJ talk over those last four seconds?
Dunphy - Up until this period of time though, you never heard “bitch” on pop radio, whether directed to another or at one’s self, unless there was that delightfully crude John Denver song I was unaware of.
Lifton - We talked about Hall & Oates last week so I don’t need to repeat myself, but I’m pretty sure this was where I first heard the word “bitch.” But my favorite thing about the song is the strings. Too often with string arrangements they’re just playing the chords and adding some sweetness to the track, but here they’re playing an important role in the overall sound, especially in the chorus.
Feerick – I’m going to sidestep the whole debate about why the word “bitch” had such a cultural moment in 1977, making its radio début like giggling society girl in a $1,000 gown, except to say that context matters — which is why people would be rightly appalled 15 years later by the likes of “Smack My Bitch Up.”
Anyway, the song itself: H&O are still in their “meh” period, for me. They sound like a rough-draft version of the much better band they would become, and “Rich Girl” sounds like a rehearsal for a much better song to come later. In fact, with its staggered two-step feel and the mildly-funky Rhodes, it sounds (musically, at least) vaguely like a beta version of “You Make My Dreams Come True.” Lyrically, I find it unpleasant and mean-spirited.
So yeah, another miss from my personal Hit Parade.
#4: Climax Blues Band, “Couldn’t Get It Right” – #3 U.S., #10 U.K.
Cummings - Whatever else there is to say about this song, here’s the first thing that comes to mind for me: Since 1977, every time I see or think of the words “New York City,” the way those words are sung here pops immediately into my head. How this band, having made a hit with this song, came back three years later with that wimpy wimp-fest “I Love You” is beyond me.
Dunphy - This is a funky little pop number, now isn’t it? I always get a smile when I hear it. What I don’t get is how confused it makes me. For years I thought this was by Ace (“Cut The Cake,” the band fronted by Paul Carrack). Meanwhile, I also thought Ace did “Pick Up The Pieces,” but that was Average White Band which I always mixed up with…wait for it…Climax Blues Band.
This song was a severe nod to that funk style that was happening then, not just by CBB or AWB, but in groups like Hot Chocolate (“You Sexy Thing”). How germaine that was the identity of the band is lost on me, especially in light of “I Love You” coming thereafter, which is a straight rip/tribute to Badfinger.
Dunphy - So be it. The point is that I now possess the memory of a 95 year old with ADD. Soldier on, Chuck…uh, Jack.
Lifton - Another one I didn’t remember until the chorus. Not a bad song, but it’s somewhat inconsequential, possibly because the singer is being upstaged by the guitar and his own background singers, who have more personality than he does.
Feerick - I was brought nowhere near to climax by this. More like Cocktease Blues Band, amirite?
#5: Al Stewart, “Year of the Cat” – # 8 U.S., #31 U.K.
Cummings - As an 11-year-old I thought Al Stewart was full of mystical wisdom and fascinating imagery. Now I think he was just full of shit, but I still love this song. The progressive focus on acoustic, then electric guitar, then that great sax solo is brilliant – so much so, in the full-length version, that I can’t bear to hear the shortened version that sometimes comes on the radio. When it does, on more than one occasion I’ve turned off the radio completely until I’ve played out the entire sax solo in my head.
Dunphy - One day I will get up the nerve to write a full treatise on Year of the Cat and its follow-up Time Passages. Both are ridiculously smooth, almost interminably for some, but I love both records. They couldn’t be more different from Stewart’s folksier leanings before them, and it is assumed that this transfiguration comes mostly from his producer at the time, Alan Parsons. Listen to both records now and it is obvious. Without Stewart’s distinctive vocals over top, you know Parsons had a hand in it.
Like Jon said before, which I fully agree with, both “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” as singles were severely cut down to meet that four-minute cutoff point. Each song has a fantastic instrumental bridge and a very cinematic feel, which always attracted me to them. Without those scant moments, the song is tellingly incomplete and, just like Jon, I have no appreciation for them. Ordinarily a single edit doesn’t have that reaction with me; I can accept it in either fashion, but with these two and especially “Year of the Cat” you are taking an important part away.
I suppose you can tell that I like it.
Lifton – I’ve never tried to figure out what the lyrics are about. Without a true chorus to break things up I tend to focus on the chord progression and the musicianship, both of which are fantastic.
Still, I always think of this song when I stare at the placemat in a Chinese restaurant.
Feerick - The Dire Straits before Dire Straits. With a little more grit in the vocals, this could have been a time-displaced outtake from Love Over Gold. Keep in mind, as I say this, that Love Over Gold is in my all-time top ten, maybe my all-time top five. It’s pretty fucking great, is what I’m saying.
A couple of months ago, there was a techno instrumental remix-slash-remake of this all over satellite radio. That piano riff works beautifully in a house-music context. Always makes me smile.
Lifton - Yeah, I’ve always heard that same melodic phrase in “Love Over Gold” when Knopfler sings “…and with the knowledge of your sins.” I wondered if that was intentional or subconscious.
David Medsker – It figures that “Year of the Cat” comes up when I’m on vacation with limited web access. So, short version: I still adore this song. The Spanish guitar, the strings, the big guitar solo, the sax…just heavenly.
I still hold out hope that the Pet Shop Boys, whose singer Neil Tennant was often compared to Stewart, will cover this someday.
Dunphy - Wow. I had never thought about it, but Tennant is a dead ringer vocally for Stewart, isn’t he!
Medsker - They used to get compared to him all the time when they first came out, which is why they will probably never cover it, but I think they could do something really cool with it if they tried. Get Johnny Marr to do the guitar, Anne Dudley on strings…I will make this happen.
Dunphy - I always wondered what a less-electronic, less dance-oriented Pet Shop Boys would sound like.
Medsker - Then check out their album Release. Mostly organic instrumentation.