Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 66
In the words of our own Jason Hare, esteemed curator of all things mellow, this second part of AM Gold: 1978 is, “seriously, the Mellow Goldiest list of all.”
He knows of what he speaks, but we still have six parts left…
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#6: Little River Band, “Reminiscing” – #3 U.S.
Jon Cummings - Nobody made AC-pop more gorgeous than the LRB’s best stuff of the late ’70s, and this is the best thing they ever did. It’s one of those songs that just becomes part of you — at least, if you were around to hear it 7 times a day on pop radio — to the point where listening to it is as natural and familiar as breathing. So I have to take myself out of that comfort zone in order to find anything fresh to say about it. Hearing it now, the run-on lines in the verses (“Friday night, it was late, I was walking you home, we got down to the gate…” sung with barely a breath taken) make me think of Taylor Swift’s similar propensity for verbosity, which I loved then and still do now (from both acts). Then I remember how long it took me to discern the words “Porter tunes” and “Glenn Miller’s band” — probably because lyrical name-dropping was a lot less common then than it is now — and how, once I had realized the lyric was identifying real people, I needed to go find out what LRB was singing about. The resulting research was probably a key factor in sending me down the road to obsessive collecting and middling success as a music critic … so thanks a lot, you Aussie tools.
Jack Feerick – And then that momentary burst of Glenn Miller-style saxophones: actually clever, or quote-”clever”-unquote? Discuss.
Dw. Dunphy - I prefer LRB in their more “rocking” mode which, clearly, is exaggerative in extremis. “Help Is On Its Way” and “The Night Owls” just grab me more than “Reminiscing” does. It’s a fine and very mellow song, but that smoothness reminds me of doctor’s offices just before getting stabbed by hundreds of needles in the search for what I’m allergic to. (A hint: EVERYTHING.) This song and Michael Franks’ “Your Secret’s Safe With Me” portent a velvet rope and a red carpet leading to lots and lots of pain.
Feerick - Another one with a tinge of that Dixie groove I was talking about last week. The New Orleans influence is mixed thin, but it goes down easy. The congas are my favorite touch, because they’re so utterly superfluous; seriously, guys? Does this tune even need congas?
Dan Wiencek - This is one of the earliest songs I remember being irresistibly drawn to, which is somewhat remarkable in that I was seven years old when it came out. Obviously the song’s theme of happy times recalled from the distant remove of old age couldn’t have meant very much to me, unless you subscribe to the theory of past lives. Or maybe, on some proto-mature level, I did somehow get it. Hurry don’t be late, I can hardly wait/I said to myself when we’re old. Maybe I didn’t get the why of it, exactly, but the music convinced me I knew what was going on: there’s longing in it, but not a painful longing, more an inviting feeling, something you want to experience for yourself. Anyway. I got older and eventually came to recognize what a sophisticated little slice of pop wonder it is, with the beautifully overstuffed lyric Jon notes, the great harmonies, the mellow horn bit at the end, and just the cleverness of the conceit: this is perhaps the first reverse-nostalgia song, or double nostalgia song, but it’s basically someone looking forward to looking back, and it makes getting old seem sweet and not at all bad. Come to think of it, that’s probably what pulled me into it as a kid.
By the way, I am rather fond of this cover, featuring Glenn Shorrock on vocals and Tommy Emmanuel on wires.
#7: Player, “Baby Come Back” – #1 U.S., #32 U.K.
Cummings - My perspective on this song changed a bit when I wrote for Popdose about one woman’s quest to get Player inducted into the R&R HoF. Now I can’t help but hear the song through the prism of “Isn’t it hilarious that somebody thinks they should be in the Hall?” More recently, I heard “She’s Gone” and “BCB” back-to-back on satellite radio, and since then I can only think of the latter as a pale imitation of the former. For all that, I still love the song, of course. Who doesn’t?
Dunphy - As with the previous song, this is also way-smooth but does it ever stick in your head. I’ll say right now that, in a match against each other there is no actual winner or loser in the tunes this week. They’re all, frankly, fine and inoffensive, but I can totally see why people were starting to get a little abusive toward the magical mellow of the times.
Wiencek - So light that it almost floats away. The verses are all moody sotto voce and somewhat vanilla, and then those harmonies come in on the chorus, and you think, “Ah yes. This is the bit they started with, and they wrote everything else around it.” Hearing it as a song, rather than an artifact of my childhood, I am struck by its resemblance to early Hall and Oates, so much so that I fear I am exposing the limits of my knowledge to this erudite Popdose crowd and that someone will chime in with, “Well of course, they have the same producer/writer/label/studio/
I also give high marks for that sitar-like riff between the verses (a Leslie-’d guitar I am assuming), a nice hook to tide you over between choruses.
Feerick – Gahh! Those guitar effects! Was this song recorded underwater? And more congas! Shit, I think Player is drowning in the Little River!
#8: Pablo Cruise, “Love Will Find a Way” – #6 U.S.
Cummings - Simply because of the band’s name, I was perpetually searching for something Latin in Pablo Cruise’s music. I suppose there was a tiny little samba thing going in “Whatcha Gonna Do,” but this track comes up completely dry. Last week I lumped PC in with the Orleans/Firefall/etc. contingent of adult-contemporary/pop bands that bubbled under the Bee Gees on pop radio in ’78. It’s interesting that the male AC band (with instruments, at least) is no longer really a going concern.
Dunphy - Everyone enjoys Pablo Cruise, especially when he jumps up and down on a sofa saying how much he loves Katie Hol…ohhhhh, bad example. This song reminds me of the community pool where we all went in summertime, and by went, I’m pretty sure we were all wading in millions of gallons of urine. But in the heat, you’re not really thinking about that as you’re splashing around. Same thing here. You’re not thinking how this track is really by-the-numbers AC pop without much to cause it to rise above, but it is nice. It can refresh. Just don’t swim with your mouth open.
Feerick – The guitar solo alone, I think, makes the case that these guys were a bar-blues band who just sort of drifted into soft rock, but who would have been happier pounding out Creedence covers three sets a night. Featherweight vocals and electric piano, but there’s a pleasing heaviness to the groove. I mean, it’s not Blue Cheer or anything, but it’s got that Cosmo’s Factory-style bass-and-toms choogle going on that actually makes my head bob. Off the beat, like the white man that I am, but still.
Wiencek – Even more self-effacing than the previous song, “Love Will Find a Way” begins with a low-key verse but doesn’t have that attention-grabbing outburst like “Baby Come Back” does. But I like it better: it’s more soulful and a more organic construction than the latter song, sliding effortlessly from verse to chorus and back. It’s mellow in the positive sense of that oft-maligned word, working a lot of feeling and musical cleverness into a smooth and pleasing package. (No jokes about my smooth and pleasing package, you sick pervs.)
(Dude, I just Wikipedia’d these guys and found out there’s no one in the band named Pablo Cruise. I feel used, duped, mocked. If only there were someway to make me feel … good. So good.)
Jason Hare - I’m sure this is still the case, but I recall searching for “Baby Come Back” on Napster and nearly all the tags listed Hall & Oates as the artist.
#9: Chuck Mangione, “Feels So Good” – #4 U.S.; nominated for Record of the Year at the 1979 Grammy Awards.
Jeff Giles - We can’t have a discussion involving “Feels So Good” without pausing to pay tribute to Jason’s stunning exegesis of the song, lovingly posted here.
David Medsker - Damn, Jeff beat me to it. I will never hear “Feels So Good” the same way again, but that is a very, very good thing.
This batch might be the most definitive collection of AM Gold that we’ve had yet.
Cummings - I have chosen to devote this moment to berating Jason for not writing a weekly “Mellow Gold” column for the last five years. Good god, man — it’s not like you have anything better to do.
Feerick – I feel a little protective of Chuck, since he’s a Rochester native (his keyboardist brother Gap still lives and gigs in the Flower City); and “Feels So Good” has a great tune — instantly memorable, simple enough to whistle but unfolding through its three sections with a pleasing intricacy in the changes. And the band is pretty hot, too. But for an ostensible jazz piece, there’s very little improv. You wait for three minutes for someone to really cut loose, and you only get about eight bars of smokin’ guitar total.
To be fair, it works much better than the full album cut, and proves again that for all that musicians in the pre-CD era loved to bitch about how their songs were trimmed for airplay, it was usually the right decision. At 9:43, “Feels So Good” is the sound of one idea being slowly beaten to death; at 3:31, though, it’s tremendous fun. I sang along the whole time!
Dunphy - Good Lord, was someone at Time-Life having a meltdown when they were programming this track list? “Calm blue ocean! Calm blue ocean! Feels so good!” I like it because instrumentals, jazz-based or otherwise, just don’t get to be hits anymore, so Mangione feels in retrospect to be a bit of an underdog. It’s a completely trumped-up impression. He was on A&M Records; the “A” being Herb Alpert who, with his Tijuana Brass, was making a bit of scratch with horn-based instrumentals already. He’d do it again with “Rise” too. In a sense, Mangione was more ringer than underdog, but nuts to that. The song’s still nice.
Wiencek – Bingo.
My earliest memory of this tune is from a Memorex audio tape commercial, I believe. I never really heard it as anything other than background wallpaper as a kid — I didn’t dislike it (I barely had the cognitive wherewithal to multiply double digits), but it never struck me as much of anything the way the songs above did (which I do remember liking as a kid). It was in my adult years, when I went back to the soft pop of my childhood with a more anthropological eye, that I fell for this tune.
Dunphy - I had a more anthropological eye once…then a troglodyte punched me in the face.
Wiencek - Yeah, that’ll happen.
#10: Commodores, “Three Times a Lady” – #1 U.S., #1 U.K.
Thierry Côté - All I can think of now is “Unce! Tice! Fee tines a mady!” Thanks.
Cummings - Bu’wheat aside … and yes, that’s all this song makes me think about, as well … this represents a key moment in Lionel’s descent into inanity. I’ve always imagined his inner dialogue being something like this: “If ‘Easy’ and ‘Sail On’ only made it to #4, but I got chart-toppers by dumbing down the lyrics for this and ‘Still,’ what might I accomplish by dropping things down to a second-grade level and singing something like ‘We going to party, karamu, fiesta, forever’? Or, better yet, ‘Oh, what a feeling / When we’re dancing on the ceiling’?”
Dunphy - The first of many, many Ritchie forays into laconic, lovelorn balladry that would either solidify or stagnate his later career. I’m going for “stagnate” not because I dislike the song (I do not dislike it — double negative means I like it) but because this track was the last nail in the coffin of Commodores Funkitude. They would lazily sail down the rivers of gold just as Kool and the Gang and Earth Wind & Fire did, leaving only George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic left to wonder who wants the funk.
Feerick – Yeah, it seems obvious in retrospect, doesn’t it, even inevitable, that Lionel Ritchie would end up a Nashville balladeer? You wouldn’t think this was the same band that did “Machine Gun,” that’s for sure; indeed, there’s hardly anything for the band to do. It’s a Ritchie solo record in all but name. The Commodores still had a couple of great songs left in them, in my estimation, but they wouldn’t come until Lionel made his exit.
Wiencek - Sadly, there appears to be no YouTube clip of the great Mystery Science Theater 3000 skit wherein Crow, inspired by this tune, constructs an Excel spreadsheet to measure the times-a-ladyhood of various female personalities, using Senator Diane Feinstein as a baseline (since, as Tom Servo notes, she is exactly one time a lady, which sounds exactly right to me). This song struck me as a kid for the same reason it struck everybody else: “What the hell does it mean to be ‘three times’ a lady?” Is she three times more lady-like, meaning she’s super prim and proper, drinks tea with her pinky in the air and makes no sound when she sneezes and never farts?
Whatever it means, this is probably the most airy, evanescent piece in a week of uncommonly almost-not-there selections. Growing up, in addition to being slightly baffled by its lyric, it seemed like a song where nothing happened: it just sort of lay there, occasionally scratching its belly but otherwise not really rousing itself. Hearing it today, it strikes me that even near-moribund Commodores are still soulful and engaging, with that warm bass sound underpinning Lionel’s vocals and that stately, unhurried pace.