Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 69
It’s 1979! That also means it’s the final year of our look at the AM Gold series. Because while mellow hits didn’t stop once the ’80s arrived, Time-Life thinks they did.
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#1: The Knack, “My Sharona” – #1 U.S., #6 U.K.
Jon Cummings – This was a song so game-changing for pop fans of the late ’70s that it provides the entire context for the summer/fall of ’79. I remember where I was when I first heard it — outdoors, at a swimming party full of kids who (like me) were had just finished middle school and were wondering how we were going to adjust, to act mature, to make ourselves seem cool in high school. And here came “My Sharona,” full of drums and guitars and sex and everything that WASN’T pop music in the first half of ’79 — and we knew that on the radio, as in our lives, everything was about to change. “My Sharona” was the soundtrack to Disco Demolition Night, to Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, to every schoolboy’s “sticky sweet romance” (to quote another, even racier Knack hit.) We all know by now that the Knack were less “new wave” than snot-nosed LA opportunists. But for kids my age that summer and fall — particularly those of us in small towns dominated by dunderheaded AOR radio stations, who couldn’t be bothered to take any airplay away from the Stones and the Who — the Knack were the gateway to Elvis Costello and the B-52s and Talking Heads and the Ramones. So we owe them that, at least.
Dw. Dunphy – You ask someone who is perhaps 25 years or younger, they’ll know The Knack as the band that did “My Sharona” and not much else. It is a very unfair circumstance, especially when you actually hear the record it came from, Get The Knack. There is hardly a misstep on the thing in terms of what a perfect power pop album should sound like — sweet melodies played with adrenaline, but just nasty enough not to be kid’s stuff. The playing on the disc is impressive, particularly from drummer Bruce Gary. His fills are more complex than perhaps necessary, but never giving the impression of overplaying. It’s a tricky line he hits very skillfully.
Unfortunately, the band was reviled in many circles which is something I couldn’t understand. Why did the punks hate them? How were they the posers they had been tagged as? After two decent-sized hits (“Frustrated” and “Good Girls Don’t”) and the huge, unstoppable “My Sharona,” the band was cut off at the knees and never achieved much notoriety again. Too bad. Like so many bands of this style and genre, we didn’t fully know what we had until they were gone, and now it’s too late to do anything about it. Frustrating.
David Lifton – What a classic. A killer hook, Fieger’s horny-as-hell vocals, and one of the most underrated guitar solos of all-time. This is what male teenage hormones sound like.
Jack Feerick – Mighty, mighty, mighty. That big, obvious guitar hook — it’s just octaves in a rhythmic pattern, but hey, so is “Immigrant Song.” And like Zeppelin at their best, “My Sharona” is clever and stupid, crude and sly, nimble and heavy all at once. Call it power pop if you want, but for me this was the beginning of New Wave; not so much overt anger as punk, but still a post-punk attitude. The Pistols smirked as much as they snarled, and the Knack projects that same aura of private amusement; Doug Fieger’s wicked grin on the sleeve to Get the Knack sums it up.
Mike Heyliger – I sometimes feel fairly negatively towards this song, as the perception in a lot of parts was that “My Sharona” was THE SONG THAT KILLED DISCO AND MADE IT SAFE FOR ROCK AND ROLL AGAIN!!…a statement that’s not only somewhat untrue, but carries so much racist and homophobic connotation that it makes me sick. That said, despite the political machinations that I’m sure led to the song being as big a hit as it was, it deserved to be as big a hit as it was. Pop songs don’t get much better than this.
There was also a radio parody of this song when I was a kid that turned “My Sharona” into “Nine Coronas.” Classic stuff.
Chris Holmes – There is only one parody you need to hear of this song, and it is “My Bologna” by Weird Al.
Thierry Côté – And Doug Fieger himself is in large part responsible for Weird Al getting signed and getting that song a wide release as a single.
Lifton – You need to stop watching decade retrospectives on VH-1, Mike. Revisionist history can never be boiled down to one or two moments. Take the widespread notion that the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and “saved” rock n’ roll from the likes of Fabian and Frankie Avalon. It completely overlooks the fact that the Beach Boys, Motown, Phil Spector, Stax all had major hits over a year before anybody in America knew who the Beatles were.
Heyliger – You’re assuming that I came to this assumption by virtue of a VH-1 decade retrospective? The insult to my intelligence is much appreciated.
Dan Wiencek – I recently heard this all the way through for the first time, probably, since I was a kid. I was surprised how much more to it there is than that irresistible, if rather brain-dead, hook, especially the guitar solo that goes on quite a bit longer than you think it’s going to. This song has more than the typical amount of baggage for me: it was all over the radio at a time when I was really starting to notice/pay attention to what was being played, and later, it experienced a resurgence when it was featured in “Reality Bites” and became kind of a symbol for the whole 70s-nostalgia wave that that movie helped to usher in. I guess when all is said and done I don’t enjoy this tune overmuch, but you can’t argue with it — it’s vintage power-pop, and arguably the last great earworm of the decade.
#2: Toto, “Hold the Line” – #5 U.S., #14 U.K.
Cummings – It seemed amazing how some of these bands that came to be deemed “corporate rock” burst fully formed onto the scene — Foreigner with “Feels Like the First Time,” Boston with “More than a Feeling, Toto with “Hold the Line.” Of course, Toto came by its instant confidence honestly, between their lineage, their experience backing Boz Scaggs, etc. “Hold the Line” sounded upon first hearing like it had been around forever, which is both a good and bad thing — it certainly eased its way onto the radio, but it (and the album it spearheaded) moved from smash-hit to cliche rather quickly.
Dunphy – I can’t say I’m a big Toto fan at all, and I will readily stand by my claim that given an option between boldness and glop, they most often ran headlong for glop, but they did no harm by their first major hit. It’s a ruddy slice of AOR mixed with pop sensibilities set to a doo-wop beat. It is with no small chagrin that I find everything that works with this song was forsaken by their later, bigger hits. So I guess that makes me wrong.
David Medsker – Do you ever think of how alien the concept of a session musician must sound to a kid today, never mind the idea that a bunch of session musicians would not only form a band, but actually achieve commercial success? Talk about things that would never happen today.
They certainly came out of the gate strongly, though. The big power chords seduced AOR programmers, and the 4/6 beat worked well on Top 40 stations. It’s not a song that I would ever go out of my way to listen to, but it sure sounds good when it’s playing.
Lifton – I have this terrible feeling that this song is the reason Matt Wardlaw became a music lover.
Annie Zaleski – He and Jeff Giles frighten me with their knowledge of Toto.
Lifton – Everything about them frightens me.
Feerick – Some Toto songs were obvious larks, some more closely approximated actual personal expressions of feeling, but there was never a single one of them that felt like it mattered. “Passion” is a debased coin, maybe — it’s as nebulous and subjective as “authenticity” — but however you define it, Toto didn’t have it. And so this sounds like what it is; highly-proficient studio hacks on a busman’s holiday while on downtime between other paid gigs. Well-played but inconsequential, even for the band themselves.
Heyliger – I don’t remember this song being a hit, probably just due to lack of exposure to top 40 radio at the time. I do remember “Georgy Porgy” (which was Toto’s urban radio hit) and I remember “Rosanna” and “Africa” from a time after I’d been exposed to Top 40 radio by virtue of “Solid Gold” and “American Top 40,” but this? No recollection until I was maybe a teenager. Didn’t stop me from falling in love with it, though.
Wiencek – Sometimes you need to hear a song in a different context in order to appreciate it. This one used to just wash over me with no particular effect. Then in the late ’90s I heard an up and coming band called OK Go cover it at a show. And suddenly I went, “Hey, that is kind of a catchy number.” And it is: no more, no less. I prefer their later, slightly more built-up and produced singles to this one, probably because I heard them so much they’re in my DNA. This is more unassuming (though still well-played and polished to a hard, mirror shine), and in a way, more approachable.
#3: The Babys, “Every Time I Think of You” – #13 U.S.
Dunphy – This song is so weird. I know that is John Waite singing, but in the pre-chorus he sounds like he’s turned into Todd Rundgren. Am I the only one hearing that?
Cummings – I don’t hear the Toddness, vocally at least, but perhaps it’s the use of horns during the pre-chorus that’s making you think of Utopia, or something. In any case, I was awfully sweet on the Babys — their Greatest Hits album was heavy-rotation right through high school. It basically followed the balladic-verses, rocked-up-choruses formula from “Isn’t It Time,” a formula that would become much more prevalent a decade later. (Did John Waite and Jonathan Cain create the template for grunge? Hmmmm…)
Medsker – I know these guys were very hot and cold (more often the latter), but hot damn, do I love their big hits. Look at the structure of this song. Drumless ballad verses spill into big choruses, and then back to the balladeering, all of it drenched in strings, with a dash of horns. How positively odd. I kind of feel sorry for the rock band whose only hits are ballads. But not too sorry – they did score a hit, after all.
Dunphy – The structure reminds me a lot of Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me.”
Lifton – Yeah, I can definitely hear the Rundgrenisms in there. I would probably think this was a lost song by him if I didn’t know better. And isn’t “Every time I think of you” also the opening line from Waite’s “Missing You”?
Feerick – I don’t believe I’d ever heard this, and I’ve got to admit I’m surprised. I always thought — or maybe just assumed — that the Babys were a glam-type outfit, or at least a little more rockin’ than this. (Maybe it was the presence of Jonathan Cain that fueled my assumption.) But this is aggressively feeble, and does nothing to change my opinion that John Waite is a weasel-faced little twerp who stumbled backwards into one decent song, which he didn’t even write (that would be “Change”).
#4: Little River Band, “Lonesome Loser” – #6 U.S.
Cummings – This and “Cool Change” were a pretty awesome one-two punch from the “First Under the Wire” album. Each had a rather nifty structure that was unlike the other rock-based pop (as opposed to disco) on the radio then — Lonesome Loser” starting with that blast of a cappella harmony on the intro chorus. Of course, “Lonesome Loser” coexisted with “My Sharona” on the radio, which made it seem awfully tame in comparison — but only in the moment.
Dunphy – As I said in a previous AM Gold, calling LRB rockers is a lot like calling pizza nutritious. The individual elements can be classified as such, but as a whole you could hardly present that case with a straight face. Even on this song, which alongside “Help Is On Its Way” kinda/sorta/somewhat support the possibility, this is an AM pop band that just happens to have guitars. Listen to the digression just before the instrumental break. Hardly the stuff of stage smoke, flamethrowers and electric divebombs — more like Arif Mardin with a cup of tea and some graham crackers on the side. And yet I like it a lot, for while LRB might not make you do air windmills, they certainly had a sound that grabbed the listener. It’s the harmonies and also the begrudging realization that Glenn Shorrock had a really good voice.
Medsker – That last line in the chorus always bothered me. “He’s a loser, but he still keeps on trying”? That’s the best you can do? You couldn’t find anything that rhymed with the ‘time’ that ended the second line?
I can see why this was a hit at the time. I can also see why the hits stopped coming shortly afterward. It’s hard to get excited about Little River Band. Sure, they might come up with a good tune here and there (and they did), but they don’t invoke much in the way of passion. Also, I will never forget the day in college when some friends and I were hanging out, and someone was playing Little River Band’s greatest hits. Our friend Jamie said, “What’s this white music you’re listening to?” White music, indeed.
Lifton – Great harmonies, and the chords in the verse borrow, surprisingly for an MOR band, a few of Pete Townshend’s tricks, namely the suspended chords and the way the bass note stays the same as the progression moves up the scale. They lyrics are nothing special, but it still works pretty good.
Feerick – Hallowe’en is a good time to think about monsters. And this, my friends, this is just a fucking monster. And like that most famous of monsters, Frankenstein’s, it seems to bolted together from disparate parts. Call it a hunch, but I’m guessing that huge chorus and the equally huge verse might have started as parts of two different tunes — like the old Supertramp songs that had the lyrics printed in two different colors on the album sleeve, to distinguish Rick Davies’ bits from Roger Hodgson’s. The way it switches from the second person to the third seems like a giveaway to me.
One quibble: the pronunciation of “beaten” as “bead’n” makes me nuts. I guess it’s an Australian thing, but still: AAAARGH.
#5: Dr. Hook, “Sharing the Night Together” – #6 U.S., #43 U.K.
Cummings – Could somebody please pull me out of this vat of store-brand fake maple syrup? I don’t even get what this song is doing here — it’s so 1978 (it peaked around Christmastime that year). I don’t see why, if they had to give Dr. Hook some ’79 love, they didn’t go with the infinitely more interesting (if not exactly “superior”) “When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman.”
Dunphy – Loser of the week, hands down. I am biased, I know, because I can’t stand Dr. Hook at all. But even with my near-insurmountable prejudice against them I think even those who would be Hook Apologists have to admit that smarmy “aw yeah, alright” makes one want to hit them with construction equipment. The sound of this song is that of a night out at the local hotspot. Everyone’s trying to have a good time. In strolls some dude, big ol’ sunglasses even thought it is 10 PM, shiny polyester shirt unbuttoned, looks like he’s one-half Yeti, smells like the carpet of drunk driver after the accident, and he’s bringing everybody down. All the women leave. All that’s left is us guys and Hairball McBuzzkill. That’s “Sharing The Night Together,” about as sexy as a hematoma.
Medsker – “Would you like to dance with me and hold me?”
No. I would not.
Lifton – I can’t describe this any better than Dunphy did.
Feerick – I kind of liked Dr. Hook when they were a joke band. Listening to this, I think that it, too, might be a joke, albeit of a different stripe. But if it is a joke, it falls miserably flat, and if it’s for real, it’s just a terrible song.
Heyliger – I remember seeing Dr. Hook on TV (some daytime talk show, or maybe Solid Gold) and thinking he (the lead singer–yes, I know Dr. Hook is/was a band) was sketchy, long before I knew what “sketchy” meant. I guess that says it all. This song just sounds like…I don’t know, if Larry from Three’s Company made records.
Wiencek – A few years ago, when I was unhappily embarking on the online dating scene, there was a profile question that went something like, “What is something you wouldn’t want someone to know about you?” And my answer?
“I like Dr. Hook’s ‘Sharing the Night Together.'”
Boom. Gauntlet thrown. So let’s get into this, Popdose.
Do I defend “Sharing the Night Together”? No. Everything Dunphy said about it is true. That’s what’s so fascinating to me. This song is so skeevy, so smarmy, so plastic and stereotypical of a 70s hookup anthem that I marvel at its mere existence. Yes, I remember this song from my childhood, and it has a weird nostalgic pull for me; there’s all kinds of soft-rock crap I like that I’ve never had a chance to talk about (most of it being too cheesy even to qualify for AM Gold). But there’s more to it than that. Notice how the music sidles up to you creepily from behind, all sighing guitar lines and jazzy (jizzy?) glissandi, before putting its too-warm hands on your shoulders with that drum entrance. Picture in your mind’s eye the smarmy — wait, I already used that word, let me hit my thesaurus real quick — that oily grin on Dr. Hook’s face (I know that’s not the singer’s name, but I like calling him that) as he croons the inviting lyric:
You’re lookin’ kinda lonely, girl
Would you like someone new to talk to?
The condescension is vivid, the disingenuousness palpable. And then, he hits you with this:
I love that. I do. It’s awful and cringeworthy and I love it. Hell, he even harmonizes with himself on it; it’s like being hit on by TWO sex-starved cretins!
What else? Well, how about the brilliant scanning of the lyric in the third verse, which I can barely convey in written prose and which makes my cerebellum try to crawl out my ear:
‘Cuz I like feelin’ like I DO/An’ I SEE in your EYES/That you’re LIK-in’ it/I’m likin’ it TOO-oo-oo-oo
For me, this song is both the nadir and the apotheosis of soft-rock. It’s something so utterly of its time that it’s beyond parody. If a contemporary artist came out with a song just like this — complete with icky pick-up sentiments, noodly guitars and soft, let-me-whisper-this-in-your-
Jeff Giles – Brilliant. Simply brilliant.