Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 68
That’s a wrap on AM Gold: 1978, friends. That means we have just one more year of Time-Life treasures to explore before our little experiment wraps up. But as a wise man once said, all mellow things must come to an end. Or something like that.
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#16: Dolly Parton, “Here You Come Again” – #3 U.S. Hot 100, #1 U.S. Country, #75 U.K.
Dw. Dunphy – “Here You Come Again, Kenny” — He’s ruined just about every one of her songs by association, you know.
I’m as guilty as the next guy for making light of Dolly, especially when it comes to matters between her and Kenny Rogers, but really during this period she was making great pop music. This song is a prime example. Take Dolly off of “Here You Come Again,” throw on Sheena Easton, and what have you got? “9 To 5 (Morning Train),” not to be confused with “9 To 5″ by Dolly Parton. Also, Dolly dueted(?) with Kenny who also dueted(??) with Sheena on “We Got Tonight.” This is getting complicated.
Look, it’s pretty simple. When I hear “Here You Come Again” I’m not thinking country or pop or whatever. I’m just thinking it is a pretty little tune. Sometimes that’s enough.
Jon Cummings – Until the fall of ’77, Dolly was still a little bit of a curiosity outside Nashville. Sure, there was “Jolene,” and a syndicated variety show that had briefly taken her out of Porter Wagoner’s orbit in ’75 … and those boobs were already a talking point. But Dolly had a dream — a crossover dream — and this is the song that made her dream come true. She had been trying for a while — she made an album in ’76 that featured versions of old pop hits like “Higher and Higher” and “My Girl,” but it didn’t really take. Forsaking her own talents as a songwriter, she roped Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil into writing “Here You Come Again,” hired the producer who had revived Glen Campbell’s pop prospects, and presto — a crossover smash. It’s severely cute, of course, and always a pleasure to hear. But it left millions … and then thousands, as her music career was supplanted by acting, theme-park moguling, and other pursuits … waiting more than two decades for her to reclaim her “Coat of Many Colors” authenticity and do something down-home and daring — like a bluegrass cover of “Stairway to Heaven.”
Before I get off the subject, several years ago my brother brought his family to visit me in LA from back home in southwestern Virginia. I strove to show them all the kid-friendly sights, but my 5-years-old-at-the-time nephew Will was unimpressed. As we walked toward lunch from a visit to the Chinese Theater, Will turned to us and announced — and you’ll have to imagine a young, rural Southern accent — “I like Dollywood more than Hollywood.”
Dunphy – Better hills?
Jack Feerick – What’s weird about this for me — and admittedly I’m coming from a particularly odd frame of reference — is that the metronomic electric piano reminds me inescapably of the stuff that John Cale was doing at the time. Not to suggest that Dolly was ripping off Cale, or even vice-versa, but that both were drawing from the same well of contemporary pop-rock production, with Cale shellacking his menacing little parables with a gloss of soothing adult-contemporary sonics in a subversive fashion.
I mean, I know that. But I’m in the strange position of having listened to a shit-ton of John Cale, and comparatively little Dolly Parton; and so, to me, “Here You Come Again” is always going to sound like some bizarro-world outtake from Honi Soit.
David Lifton – I tend to like songs about people who are emotionally caught up in bad relationships, probably because I tend to get involved with women who are no good for me. I’ve always been stuck on the line, “looking better than a body has a right to.” If a man had sung this, it would be derided for being sexist or misogynistic (OK, maybe not in the 1970s), but Dolly gives the song, and especially that line, the right amount amount of vulnerability.
Dan Wiencek – Donnie Iris later uses that line in “Ah! Leah!” a few years hence. It always struck me as an oddly colloquial phrase and I wonder if he picked it up from this song. (I don’t find that the line comes off as anymore piggish than most other “you look hot”-type sentiments.)
Dunphy – And that was the best thing about Dolly, at least during this part of her career. She was in many respects “America’s Sweetheart” and that line from her is received without any sort of malice or aggression. Imagine if Linda Ronstadt had sung it. It would not have scanned the same at all.
Lifton – We don’t need to imagine it. We have the line, “I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty” on “Different Drum,” which we discussed almost a year ago. I have this vision of Giles using “Ah! Leah!” on a mix tape he gave to his wife when they were dating, and also wearing the suit from the video.
Jeff Giles – I have a daguerreotype of Lifton and Stephen Foster passed out in an alley after drinking a sheep bladder full of turpentine.
Lifton – Stop jerking off to it.
Feerick – Popdose, everybody! Come for the cogent musical analysis, stay for the inevitable descent into personal abuse.
Giles – COGENT personal abuse.
#17: Jay Ferguson, “Thunder Island” – #9 U.S.
Chris Holmes – Apropos of nothing, but I was fascinated to learn that Jay Ferguson was not only the lead singer from Spirit (one of the sadly unheralded rock bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s) but also wrote the theme song to the American version of The Office.
Thierry Côté – And a source of endless confusion for Sloan fans who Google that band’s Jay Ferguson.
Matt Wardlaw – Wow – I hadn’t heard that about Jay Ferguson. So with that Office cash, he’s getting paid….LOTS! Good for him.
Jason Hare – Yeah, he and Walter Murphy (“A Fifth of Beethoven,” now Family Guy) lucked out in that department. (As did Matthew Wilder.)
Terje Fjelde – I’ve always enjoyed this scene with Jay Ferguson and Spirit as themselves in Jacques Demy’s movie Model Shop.
Dunphy – This is a neat hooky tune saddled with Ron Burgundy lyrics. Sha la la la la, my lady.
Cummings – Let’s see … story song? Check. Awesome, if occasionally perplexing, use of the phrase “sha-la-la”? Check. (Was “sha-la-la-la-la-la, m’lady” the precursor to “yada-yada-yada”?) Just enough dresses undone and desert-island lovemaking to titillate a 12-year-old in the pre-pre-“licks me like a lollipop” era? Check! And this was one of my very favorite songs of ’78.
David Medsker – I do not remember this song at all from my childhood, though with as many Medsker hooks as it has – the transition from chorus to verse kills me – I’m not sure how that’s possible. Very much of its time production-wise, but this sounds damned good today, at least to these ears.
Funny how three of these songs (this, Al, Ambrosia) feature men reminiscing about the women they’ve left behind.
Cummings – You can’t have a “Me Decade” if you hang around with somebody else too long. Chalk it up to the need to balance mellow-gold romance with the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em ethos of ’70s pop.
Dunphy – Which would make Rupert Pupkin’s “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” the final apotheosis of the whole deal. You have a guy who loves and leaves, only to find the one he leaves for is the one he left behind. No wonder it was the first hit of 1980.
Keith Creighton – And here I thought Charlene’s “I’ve Been To Paradise (but I’ve never been to me)” set off the Me Decade.
Cummings – Worst. Song. Ever! “I’ve slept with kings, and I’ve seen some things that a woman ain’t s’posed to see.” Anybody who says “ain’t s’posed” ain’t gonna be sleepin’ with no kings.
Tony Redman – That quote reminds me of The American Dream Dusty Rhodes. (The money quote hits about a minute into it.)
Medsker – Ned’s Atomic Dustbin did a killer deconstruction of the track, though.
Lifton – Christ, I hate the 1970s.
Feerick – It’s no “China Grove,” for sure. In fact, it sounds like he’s trying to mash up “Brown-Eyed Girl,” sha-la-la-las and all, with theme to Simon and Simon. Not a bad thing, I guess. But I can also see why I’ve never, ever heard this one on classic rock radio.
#18: Gino Vannelli, “I Just Wanna Stop” – #4 U.S.
Dunphy – Something about Vannelli’s voice never agreed with me. It’s just so over the top, even when he is singing the verses in a hushed, quiet-storm way. It’s like he’s about to go Broadway at any moment and then, bam, The Full Jean Valjean. Those Vegas lounge backup singers don’t help either. I’m sure someone will take issue with my appraisal and tell me about the magnificence of Vannelli and how he saved seven nuns and orphans from a flaming school bus, but acts of heroism can’t rescue this melodramatic plop.
Cummings – I can’t believe Barry Manilow hasn’t covered this yet. When Barry’s putting together another of his how-much-lucre-can-I-milk-from-mellow-gold-
Lifton – True story: Vanelli was the second white performer to appear on Soul Train (Dennis Coffey was the first, a few years earlier). I can kind of see it. As a blue-eyed soul singer, he’s not in Daryl Hall or McD’s class, but he’s not bad. After I listened to this I was wondering why it hasn’t been covered by an R&B singer short on material. Then I realized that, five minutes after it ended, I couldn’t remember how the verses went. And then I figured out why nobody has covered it.
Feerick – Blue-eyed soul? More like albino soul. Dude’s whiter than Rob Thomas after an explosion in a bleach factory. On the quantitative scale of soulfulness, Gino is barely scraping 28.2 deciBrowns, a touch lower than the guy from Counting Crows and in fact only slightly more soulful than David Byrne.
Say, what do you call that thing where the music mirrors the lyrics? There’s a technical term for it, I’m sure. It’s like onomatopoeia, in prose, where a word like boom or splat actually sounds like the thing that it describes. In pop music, it happens a lot, like when the lyric includes the word “high,” the melody will shoot up, or it will drop down on the word “low.” Or as here, when the music stops on the word “stop.”
Oh, wait, I just remembered — it’s called STUPID FUCKING GIMMICKY BULLSHIT, is what it’s called.
#19: Al Stewart, “Time Passages” – #7 U.S.
Medsker – Al has gone on record saying that he was never thrilled with this song, that it was essentially a rewrite of “Year of the Cat” (though I’ve never viewed it that way), but he’s grown to admire it over the years because of his fans’ affection for the song. That makes sense – the song is admittedly no “Year of the Cat,” but neither is anything else in Stewart’s catalog, so writing it off because it’s not as good as your best song is silly. To me, it’s a lovely little tune about a guy feeling a bit wistful for days gone by. And I really dig the somewhat rock-ish instrumental break that pops up before the third verse and serves as the outro.
Dunphy – I particularly like how that break is reused in a different way. In the first instance, as you said, it is a more rock-type sound. In the second, it relies on the strings more and I like how it takes on that symphonic sound.
I guess I could understand Stewart’s initial dissatisfaction, but I’ve always had a soft spot for both albums (as I’ve said many times before). It’s a shame the follow-up, 24 Carrots, was kind of inconsistent.
Now, if you want to do drama, this is how it goes. Keep it understated until later in the track, let the instrumentation hit those highs. For me, both Year of the Cat and Time Passages exude cinematic pop with a lot of class. For others it might be too calculated and too smooth, and I can see where they might get that impression. You’re certainly not running any marathons with Al Stewart as your psyche-up soundtrack. Yet there have been few musicians who could play it this cool and still hook the listener, and certainly in modern pop music where every singer (male or female) is nothing but a quivering mass of emotion and neurosis, Stewart stands out for his reserve.
Cummings – The instrumental hook is indelible, and unforgettable — 34 years later I can play the whole thing out in my head, from the sax to the briefly chugging guitar, without even listening to the song. Generally speaking, this song lacks the mystery of “Year of the Cat,” but I prefer its groundedness anyway.
Lifton – I like instrumental breaks where the chords are different than the verse or the chorus. Steely Dan admitted that this was a key to their success, that doing so often gave their soloists an opportunity to stand out because they were able to add new melodic ideas into the song. So while I’m not the biggest fan of this song, I’ll at least give Stewart credit for using that trick to keep things interesting.
Feerick – Songs about inevitable mortality and the irretrievability of the past generally hit my sweet spot, particularly as I grow older myself and can feel the hand of Old Man Mortality creeping ever closer. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” “My City Was Gone,” “Yesterday When I Was Young” — perfect songs for autumn, when our thoughts turn most to the running down of the days.
And this. Which, while very good, is, ironically, a little too long. Too much soloing, too much vamp. It undercuts its message that time is precious, by wasting so much of it.
#20: Ambrosia, “How Much I Feel” – #3 U.S.
Dunphy – Not my favorite track in the lite-pop Ambrosia canon, mostly because of my aversion to songs where the singer goes on about doin’ it but thinking of someone else. “But there’s just something that I’ve got to say, sometimes when we make love I still see your face…” Really, if I said that to a former girlfriend, I don’t think she’d be moved. In fact I think she’d be mortified and skeeved beyond belief, and that’s how I feel when I hear those lyrics. Everything else about the song is quite okay, including David Pack’s voice which was enough to rival Popdose’s one-time patron saint Michael McDonald…it’s just what he’s singing that don’t add up.
Cummings – If you ask my wife her favorite songs of the ’70s, this definitely top-fives, so I’d better not say anything bad about it. I don’t have much negativity to direct toward it, anyway — it’s got a nice, sophisticated melody for a mellow-gold ballad, and it’s pretty much cougar catnip, am I right?
Creighton – If only I connected radio-staple “How Much I Feel” Ambrosia with “Poor Rich Boy” Ambrosia from on the original Arthur soundtrack (one of my first LPs). In the middle school hallways back in the day, the stoners were discussing their favorite metal bands and I said “oh yeah, have you heard the new Ambrosia? It rocks.” Needless to say, that didn’t go well.
Medsker – I am such a sucker for those big Ambrosia hits. As a younger man still confused about how love works and what to expect from it, I was drawn to the idea of an eternal, star-crossed love. There was such tragedy in it, and that spoke to me. Nowadays, when I hear the last verse and the guy talks about how he has a wife but he still sees his ex’s face during sex, I think to myself, “Dude, you agreed to walk away from the love of your life because she was upset about a rumor? You didn’t fight for her, not for a second? Fool.”
Dunphy – On Ambrosia, a few years after their other soft rock hits (from the album 180), they trickled back into a harder sound. Road Island, and the opening “For Openers (Welcome Home)” was kind of shocking for those who wanted more Doobies-ish pop.
Medsker – Little River Band tried the same thing with Playing to Win. It’s fascinating to me to see what bands will do in order to survive. Perhaps the best example is Kool and the Gang, who abandoned their funky roots and started playing white music after disco crashed.
Dunphy – The Bee Gees infamously did the same with their misguided Sgt. Pepper efforts. They were contemporaries of the Beatles and the whole Brit (Australian?) Invasion thing, but by the time of Pepper’s they really weren’t known for it anymore.
Cummings – Well, Sgt. Pepper was more of an overreach by everyone involved than it was a plea for attention or a “roots” move of some sort. It was a Spectaculaaaar SpectACulaaaar, to quote Moulin Rouge (another overreach, but one that worked better). The Beeges had all the attention they needed at the time of its ill-conceived creation — as did Frampton — and (beyond the general badness) what I think struck most people was a sense of, “Sure, you’re the biggest acts of the late ’70s, but criminy — you’re NOT the BEATLES.”
Lifton – Once again, pretty tunes disguise sleazeball lyrics. Christ, I hate the 1970s.
Feerick – Ambrosia = canned mandarin oranges, shredded sweetened coconut, mini-marshmallows, and tinned pineapple, folded into a tub of Cool Whip. Sticky, synthetic, beloved of white people, and devoid of any nutritive value whatsoever.
Dunphy – Perfect description. Disgusting to think about ingesting, but perfect.