Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 62
One song in this room just filled the expanse with methane. Can you guess which one? – Dw. Dunphy, on seeing the second batch of songs for AM Gold: 1977.
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#6: Commodores, “Easy” – #4 U.S., #9 U.K.
Dw. Dunphy - At this point the band was transforming from funk/soul to almost pop/blues which is plainly evident in “Easy” and “Sail On” which made it easier for Lionel Richie to slide headlong into his ballad-leaden next phase. That may not be such a good thing, but the songs Commodores were putting out at this brief juncture were really something special, bridging genres invisibly. “Easy” was the best example of the two in that, even when Faith No More covered it there were no changes to be made. Everything was right there (except, I guess, for Mike Patton’s “I smelled a fart” exclamation of “Ewwwwww…”
Jack Feerick - I dunno, man; what’s so easy about crushing social, family, community, and financial obligations? Because for me, Sunday morning is about paying the bills, then wrestling the kids into the car in time for church.
Jon Cummings - Otherwise known as The Song That Made Lionel Richie. Thanks for that! (“Sail On,” “Still,” “Running With the Night.”) And no thanks! (“Oh No,” “My Love,” “Stuck on You,” “Dancing on the Ceiling,” etc., etc.) Easily located at various spots in “Easy” are all the traits we quickly came to love (and loathe) about Lionel: The sleight-of-hand blending of soul and country. The propensity for impactful vocal utterances that exist outside language (oooooooo!). The gorgeous melody supporting lyrics that are occasionally idiotic, and/or so circular in their reasoning as to be tautological (“Everybody wants me to be what they want me to be”). What the verses here (all about breaking up and being stifled by others) have to do with why he’s”easy like Sunday mornin’,” I’ve never understood. But “Easy” still winds up firmly on the positive side of Lionel’s ledger.
Michael Parr - The dissing of Lionel Ritchie is nothing short of outrageous!
Cummings - You mean outRAAAAAAYYYYYYgeous! Fiesta forever!
Feerick – Oh, stick around; I haven’t got much kind to say about Mike Patton, either.
David Lifton - I’m surprised we haven’t gotten more discussion this week because these are all in our sweet spot. I wasn’t a Richie fan growing up. I just kind of tolerated the hits because they fit in so well with the times. Listening to this again doesn’t give me a new appreciation for him but I can respect how much command he had of his own craft at this early stage in his career.
#7: Andrew Gold, “Lonely Boy“ – #7 U.S., #11 U.K.
Dunphy - I’ve been meaning to reexamine Gold’s music for some time now. Yes, he was the primary instrumentalist on Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel (and on “You’re No Good” which we talked about a couple months ago) and yes, he had a major streak of power-pop in him which went largely unnoticed. Gold has been relegated to the soft rock mineshaft mostly after the fact, as his “Thank You For Being a Friend” was beaten to death for decades as the theme song for The Golden Girls. Yet “Lonely Boy” is a pretty great track and makes one sad he got pigeonholed as badly as he did in his career. He tried to shake that off by joining an odd UK rock band known for singing about nasty stains.
Cummings - When Andrew died a couple years back, I noted in Facebook or somewhere that “Lonely Boy” is a great song that seems to be missing about seven verses, detailing how our protagonist went from that run down the hallway as a 2-year-old to his decision to leave home at 18, feeling like he had never been loved since his sister came home from the hospital. Of course, when I look at sibling and parent/child relationships in my own family, both as a kid and as a grown-up, it’s clear that our protagonist’s story is a very common one, and leaving out those seven verses was just fine because it allowed listeners to insert their own in-between stories. In other words: This was a pop song that actually resonated, and still does.
Feerick – Maybe I need the backstory, then, because the word that comes to my mind isn’t “lonely,” but rather “narcissistic.” Yes, it’s impeccably-crafted musically — maybe a little too clever for its own good, what with the continual turning around of the beat — and the lyric is neat and concise. But the picture we get of the protagonist is so unflattering that I kinda hate the song. Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of six, and I never thought I was the center of anyone’s universe, but I’ve got no sympathy for this privileged little shit whatsoever.
Lifton - A really well-produced track but I don’t care much for the song. I’m torn between the detachment of putting himself in the third person (and the fact that it’s uptempo adds to the detachment) and the knowledge of how mawkish it would have been if he had gone with the first person. Maybe he wants to have it all – the sensitive singer-songwriter who can also (kind of) rock out – and as a result it takes away from both.
Dunphy - I recently revisited Gold’s Whirlwind album which was, supposedly, his bid to be seen more as a rocker than a soft rocker…and all the pitfalls you’d expect from such a bid are there. The overcompensation, the “tuff talk” and a need to jive through the ad libs like you’re that loose and spontaneous. You can tell this was the guy Gold really wanted to be and, in so many ways, never was.
#8: 10cc, “The Things We Do for Love” – #5 U.S., #6 U.K.
Dunphy - From the Deceptive Bends album, 10cc had lost two of the driving forces in the band, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, leaving Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman to soldier on. By and large they did pretty well with this, just one of two 10cc hits most everybody knows. The title of the album hits it on the head, and this is a ‘deceptive’ song. Had it included some carefully ensconced sh-boops and doo-wahs, this would have been a sly nod to early ’60s pop (which Gouldman, a very successful pop song writer in that respect, would know like second-nature). Without those, the tune remains a perfect trifle of a song that eats like candy.
After a few years, Godley and Creme would make inroads as music video directors (Sting’s “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” and Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”), Gouldman would form Wax UK (in the UK, just Wax) with the previously mentioned Andrew Gold and, eventually, folding him in as the next version of 10cc.
Cummings - The immediate response must be that this is not quite 10cc’s best moment — that would be “I’m Not in Love,” in my opinion, and others who care more about the band’s oeuvre than I do will have different ideas. But if the definition of a “classic” is that it can be redone and/or recast in a variety of contexts that both succeed on their own merits and burnish the stature of the original, then I suppose we have to grant that this song is a classic on its rather insubstantial terms. My favorite version, not surprisingly, is Clive Gregson and Christine Collister’s folkie rendition from the early ’90s. Otherwise, the ubiquity of the original and any number of covers in films, trailers and TV shows (my daughter downloaded a version from a Disney Channel movie called Spectacular a couple years ago) have kept the song relevant, even current, for a quarter-century, and there’s no reason to think we’ll stop hearing it anytime soon.
Lifton - I remember the popular girls singing this on the bus on the way to school. I guess this was back in third grade, so they were stupid and stinky. Still, as with the first two, you have to admire the craft and all the details put into the production, especially in the background vocals. The way they keep throwing on another voice with each line on the bridge is masterful, adding depth to the nursery rhyme melody. Fountains Of Wayne would later use that to great effect on “Utopia Parkway” and “Mexican Wine.”
Feerick – Clever production bits and some sophisticated, jazzy chord changes can’t hide the fact that is basically pastiche. It’s okay, but it’s hardly the future of music.
#9: Dave Mason, “We Just Disagree” – #12 U.S.
Dunphy - I cannot hear this song without thinking of Yankees baseball. Local newscasts often used this song as the underscore for reports about George Steinbrenner’s latest firing of famed and troubled manager Billy Martin. It also was the tune they used to report Martin’s death. I know some people love this song, but for me it sounds like a second-rate Gordon Lightfoot ripoff. It doesn’t make me feel good to say that. From all I’ve heard about Mason, he’s a real standup kind of guy. He’s also a heck of a guitar playing, having lent his considerable talents to Traffic, but you’d get none of that here.
The song is very nice and pleasant, but if “The Things We Do For Love” is a tasty dessert, this one is just a little too heavy. It wants to really prove an emotional point somehow, but for all its depth of emotion, it just sounds like a stereotypical ballad punching that note of “feeling” too hard and too often. I would, however, take it any day over our next track.
Cummings – For a variety of reasons, from the progeny of the singer to the perceived substance of the song, I’m going to hazard a guess that the NEXT song we cover is going to be generally considered the dud of the week. However, speaking for myself, I’ll take the next one over this one anytime. I’m not a big proponent of Mason as a singer or frontman, anyway, but “We Just Disagree” leaves me completely cold. It’s so turgid, so ’70s-laid-back, so goddamn mature that it gives no-fault breakups a bad name. If somebody’s gonna break up with somebody in a pop song (or other pop-culture artifact), I want there to be a good reason. He’s a dog, she’s a two-timer, they’re actually brother and sister. Give me SOMETHING. This just lays there and stays all realistic. If I wanted true-life marital strife, I’d look at photos from my childhood.
Feerick – Ouch.
Anyway, like Jon, I never had much use for Dave Mason when he was with Traffic — “Hole In My Shoe” alone makes me want to beat him savagely — but I find this very good. It’s difficult to write a breakup song without painting either party as a victim or a monster, but Dave stays determinedly even-handed. And lets you know, with that throwaway “Why should I care?” just how determined he is to stay fair-minded and even-handed; but he can’t quite hide how brokenhearted he is over the whole thing. He’s putting up a good front, but not quite good enough.
It’s a marvelous lyric. I would put “We Just Disagree” right up there with “Your Song” with how much it actually says, while appearing to say very little. And where did this warm, sturdy baritone come from? I know that anyone sharing a stage with Steve Winwood was never going to be more than the second-best singer in the room, but I never heard him sound this good. It just all comes together on this one.
Those phased guitars are just awful, though.
Lifton - Dunphy and I must have watched different local newscasts because I don’t remember this being used to talk about the Yankees. I’m kind of with Jon on the lyrics. Usually no-fault breakups take place after three or four dates when you realize that you just don’t have enough in common to build a relationship, and that’s hardly worth a subject for a song. But I also think that Mason wanted to write a song that acknowledged the narrator’s own mistakes and chickened out for some reason. As a result it works against the song.
#10: David Soul, “Don’t Give Up on Us” – #1 U.S., #1 U.K.; Soul’s only U.S. hit, but the first of five U.K. Top 20 singles.
Dunphy - What is Bread that is all water and no yeast? And has there been a singer with a last name that so perfectly contradicted the sound of his major hit? My goodness, I can feel my testicles trying to crawl back up inside me trying to escape this soft-rock castration.
Cummings - Ever since 1977 I’ve wanted to hate this song. What business did Starsky (or Hutch, I can’t remember which one he was) have singing a pop song, especially one as gloppy as this? Even the dude’s name made me want to punch him in the face. (Real last name: Solberg.) And those lyrics? “It’s written in the moonlight, and painted on the stars.” Honestly? And yet … for all the reasons “We Just Disagree” leaves me cold with its laid-back resignation, “Don’t Give Up On Us” somehow stirs the spirit with its insistence on hope and romance (and overbaked metaphors, and sappy strings) in the face of impending relationship doom. That’s my take, anyway, and I’m sticking to it. I’ve done so for 35 years, against all my better instincts, so why stop now?
Lifton - He was Hutch, Jon. There’s no way on Earth that Paul Michael Glaser, the made-for-TV Elliott Gould, could ever be mistaken for somebody named “Hutch.” Yeah, I guess there’s a genuine sense of hope in the lyrics, and Soul has a better voice than you would expect from a TV star cashing in on his fame, but it doesn’t excuse the wimpiness of the song.
Feerick – Not the worst decision that David Soul ever made (that would be taking on the Bogart role in the short-lived TV series of Casablanca), but pretty crummy nonetheless.
Something I’ll never understand about actors making the transition to pop idols is that they tend to take on (or let themselves get talked into taking on) swoony ballad-type material, rather than songs more tailored to their existing personas.
F’rinstance: Couple years ago the teenybopper actress Jenette McCurdy, who plays the rowdy sidekick on iCarly, was making the leap to music, and she pursued a lite-country ballad direction that required her to make videos where she looked longingly into the camera instead of, y’know, breaking stuff over her head and jumping up and down. She was trying to expand her brand, I guess; but it was jarring to see her so sweet and tender. If she’d done one of them there Sassy Girl Power Anthems With Attitude, she could have capitalized on her existing image instead of battling it.
Similarly, if Soul could have found some way to channel his poor-man’s-Steve McQueen act into music — a beer-drinkin’, hell-raisin’ outlaw country project, maybe? — it would have been more effective than this dose of aural saltpeter.