Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 72
Well, this is the end my friends. After 72 installments running over 16-plus months we at Popdose have listened the good, the bad, and the mediocre songs from Time-Life’s AM Gold series. Despite the notable lack of many of the biggest pop/rock artists of the ’60s and ’70s (The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, and Chicago just to name a few), we were still able to sample a decent range of hit pop from 1962 through 1979.
While Time-Life did issue other volumes under the AM Gold banner, we felt it best to end our journey here. Mellowmas is almost upon us after all and honestly, one can only handle so many Three Dog Night songs. That’s not to say we won’t ever open the Time-Life vaults again for your reading and listening pleasure — or tackle another series altogether — but for now this is it.
And it seems only fitting that as we close the curtain on AM Gold: 1979 and on this series, an old friend returns to pay us one last visit…
If I may be allowed a small indulgence before the orchestra plays me off the stage, I’d like to personally thank not only everyone who took the time to read and comment on Digging for Gold over the last 72 weeks, but the inimitable Popdose writing and editorial staff as well. Their keen insights, sharp humor, and impressive music knowledge are what truly made this series a pleasure for me to edit.
Stay mellow, my friends. — Chris Holmes
Spotify users, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)
#16: John Stewart, “Gold” – #5 U.S.
Jack Feerick - I’m pretty sure John Stewart isn’t the returning veteran alluded to above, but he was with the Kingston Trio, who gave us “The Reverend Mr. Black” way back when. The Mac contingent steals the song right from under his nose, though — his voice is pretty shot.
I like the idea Stewart is playing with here — that everybody’s got a song to sing, from the superstar on stage to the mechanic on the corner, and all God’s critters got a place in the choir — but in practice it becomes yet another song in my least-favorite subgenre of pop: A Musician’s Lot Is Not A Happy One, usually accompanied by videos with grainy black-and-white footage of touring rockstars sprawled in airport lounges, rubbing their eyes to express their profound, profound weariness (not to mention self-pity) after a night of drug abuse and groupie sex in five-star hotels, the poor bastards.
I like the drive of it — that same bump-ba-bump rhythmic pulse that shows up in everything from “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me” to Simple Minds’ “Waterfront” — and I dig Lindsey’s one-note guitar solo (what, so you’re Neil Young now?). But “My heart beating time with my breathing” is a profoundly stupid line, and tells me nothing about the singer’s emotional state, because that’s how your heart works, all the time; when your breathing speeds up or slows down, your heart rate does the same. (Supposedly — and this may be apocryphal — most people’s autonomic systems default to one breath for every four heartbeats, which allegedly provides a biological bsis for our instinctive preference for four-four time.)
Jon Cummings - To begin with: Many editions of the AM Gold annual series saved some of the best, and most representative, tracks for the end of the CDs, to take listeners out on a high note. Not so much this time, sadly – and it’s kind of a bummer to go out the way this column ends. But that’s the way the hair feathers, as they might have said.
A recurring theme this week is “Songs that might not have gotten on the radio if not for the artists’ accomplices,” and this is as good an example as any. Would John Stewart, absent from our collective consciousness for a decade by ’79, have gotten a top-5 hit without Stevie Nicks’ voice on his record? No chance! But in this case, it’s just fine, because “Gold” certainly is a propulsive track that sounds great on a car stereo. I never knew what that first line of the chorus says, though. “Flying overkated”? Let me go look it up … Shit! It’s “Drivin’ over Kanan”! Kanan Road is 5 miles from my house! It’s the road I take to get to the beach! Well, there you go, one more lesson learned before we shut this schoolhouse down. Thank you, AM Gold!
David Medsker - This got to #5? Really?
This is the definitive yacht rock song, for my money. It’s rock-ish, but it’s so mannered, with any potential edginess smoothed out. There is certainly nothing rock and roll about singing about your dad singing in the shower, that’s for sure.
Dw. Dunphy - A classic example of being forgiven for less than stellar output for the company you’re keeping. The chunk-a-chunk drive of the tune is not so far removed from Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” and the U.S. was so enamored with the Mac by now, how could the effort actually fail? Well, it doesn’t, but that doesn’t gloss over the truth that “Gold” is super-slight. It is repetitive. Stewart sounds less like a Kingston Trio alum than someone imitating Johnny Cash on a very bad day (and there is no great compliment in that).
Yet I don’t cringe with revulsion with the song either. It has all the value of an old commercial jingle, but if you haven’t heard that jingle for some time it kind of pulls you through. I’ve never had cause to seek out the album “Gold” appeared on though.
David Lifton - I guess is the last of the “Wow, I had repressed this one” responses from me. If you played me this without knowing who it was, I’d hear the LA references and Stevie Nicks cameo and think that it was a bad Warren Zevon outtake, because the voice is kind of similar. But it lacks Zevon’s wit and personality.
#17: Nicolette Larson, “Lotta Love” – #8 U.S.
Feerick - Nicolette’s got great pipes, but I’m pretty sure this backing track was lifted wholesale from a porno soundtrack, flute solo and all.
Cummings - It’s such a shame that Nicolette didn’t have more success as a frontwoman than she did, and it’s really such a shame that she died so young. (1997, age 45) She certainly had the chops, but she made her stab at the brass ring right at the moment when the whole singer-songwriter game was ending (and her mentors, Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt, were about to slide into noises that didn’t suit Larson particularly well). Jack, you can snicker all you want about pornish flutes and whatnot, but the arrangement here is quite lovely – particularly in comparison to Neil’s own recorded version, from the Comes a Time album, which sounds like a failed attempt to ape Todd Rundgren (and which lacks a hook nearly as enticing as those flutes).
Medsker - SWOON. It’s amazing how much more I like Neil Young’s songs when I hear other people singing them. This is the peak of the mountain in terms of Neil Young covers, as far as I’m concerned. What a great voice Nicolette had. Strong, just the right amount of raspy…sigh.
Dunphy - When I found out it was a Neil Young song I was dumbstruck. Seriously? Another song that was gentle to the ear but lacked any further consequence, I always pictured Larson as some pretty blonde enjenoue singing the song in a studio, money men and lounge-lookin’ producers high-fiving each other in the booth, and when the session was done, she shouted, “Hit song!” In other words, this is the cliched fake song a thousand movies about struggling, faceless pop singers pretended to sing.
Much like “Gold,” I don’t hate it either and in its place and time is perfectly acceptable tuneage — but it sounds fake. It sounds like a blah, bland concoction made by a screenwriter to show the singer singing, and nothing more.
Lifton - I guess I’m the only one here who prefers Neil’s version. It’s too slick and the Fender Rhodes only hints at the major seventh chords that are so important in the original. But there’s also a lyrical change I don’t like. Neil sings, “My head needs relating, not solitude,” while Larson sings, “You know I need relating…” It seems minor, but Neil’s ties back to the first verse’s “My heart needs protection,” giving it a head-and-the-heart thing, while Larson just cares about her heart.
#18: Commodores, “Still” – #1 U.S., #4 U.K.
Feerick - In which Lionel Ritchie basically just orders the rest of the band to leave the room: “Take five, fellas, I got this one.”
As we close in on the end of this project, one of the most depressing things, looking back, is how little the fucked-up, retrograde attitudes about women have changed in the pop scene with the passage of the years. The naked fear and suspicion of something like “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” has been given a gloss of quote-unquote “sensitivity,” of a token attempt at empathy — but there’s a weird cognitive dissonance, a passive-aggressive edge, to a lot of these lonely-hearts letters.
“Still” is no exception. In particular, the lyric “You laughed at me / You said you didn’t need me / I wonder if you need me now” sounds downright spiteful: WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, BITCH?
Cummings - Lionel’s propensity for writing lyrics with short, choppy phrases that take him forever to sing … which he pursued all the way from “Fee Times a Mady” to Kenny’s “Lady” to “My Love” to “Stuck on You” to “Ballerina Girl” to “Do It To Me” (every last one of them songs I hate) … reminds me of nothing so much as this great episode of Night Court where they’re trying desperately to clear a docket of cases and get out of the courtroom, but finally they’re confronted by a geezer who begins his defense by saying, “I’ll………………be…………….brief.” For all of that, “Still” isn’t bad. It has a killer melody, and those instrumental flourishes provide tons of drama.
Medsker - Wasn’t old enough to appreciate the lyric when this was a hit. I appreciate it now, and the song is pretty, but it doesn’t keep my attention like I feel it should. In retrospect, you can hear future country Lionel lurking underneath.
Dunphy - Wouldn’t say it was Commodores’ nadir but the Richie Ballad Virus was firmly in the blood stream now and no antibiotic could be hoped to be the cure. It wouldn’t be until after Marvin Gaye’s death, and a Lionel-less lineup recorded “Night Shift” that the group might stumble back, even a tad, from this coma but by then it was — GASP! — too late!
Lifton - For years I thought this was called “Games People Play,” and there was another song called that a few years earlier (not Joe South) that I liked at the time and I have no idea who sang it even though I can still sing the “gotta get away” hook 35 years after I last heard it. And hey, it turns out I have a huge database of songs at my fingertips and it turns out it’s by the Spinners. I’m listening to it now, and of course it could have only been the Spinners. If nothing else, this series has reunited me with a song I loved from my childhood, and it wasn’t even one of the songs in the series.
As for “Still?” It’s just Lionel doing what Lionel does best, which may have been what I said when we discussed “Easy.”
#19: Dionne Warwick, “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” – #5 U.S., #62 U.K.; her first hit U.S. single since 1974.
Feerick - Hey, it’s her again! They never did settle on a spelling of her name, then?
Dionne does what Dionne does well — the big orchestral ballad. It’s miles away from the pointillist restraint of the Bacharach/David years, and into the thunderous showboating fashion of Barry Manilow (who produced this record), gearshift key change and all. The lyric has enough emotional substance to save it from being empty bombast, though. At least it’s not “That’s What Friends Are For.”
Cummings - I suppose Dionne never did much that she could really call her own … at least until she decided to buy a magic ball and hang with her Psychic Friends … so let’s note that this is Barry Manilow’s sole appearance on the AM Gold series, even tangentially. And that’s a shame, because failing to account for Mr. Manilow is neglecting a vital, gloriously histrionic piece of ’70s pop history. I was a huge fan of Barry when I was 10 and 11 and 12, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Yes, he was capable of atrocious pabulum like “Can’t Smile Without You” and “Copacabana,” but he also made some of the best ballads of the decade (“Could It Be Magic,” “Weekend in New England,” and my fave, “Looks Like We Made It”). Over many years I would occasionally say to friends, “Let’s give this conversation a Barry Manilow ending,” then throw my arms out wide while I sang, “Good-BYYYYYYYYYYEEEEEE.”
As for Dionne, I’m suddenly feeling nostalgic for the numerous weeks I spent thrashing her work with Bacharach & David in this column, and wishing I could get in a few more shots before we wrap up here. Ah, memories…
Dunphy - How the hell did they miss “Mandy”? For God’s sake, Time-Life, what the hell?
Medsker - Burt Bacharach swears by Dionne Warwick, but despite her technical skill, I could always take or leave her. This is no exception. Key change!
Dunphy - Oddly, this to me feels like the winner of the week. It’s a bit like winning a marathon because the rest of the contestants suddenly had mortal fear of breaking the tape, but I think I could take this over any of the other tracks on the basis of enjoyment alone. The others need too much support to get by where this is just nice. Warwick has a great voice and always did…I just wish she didn’t devolve into such a wack-a-doo.
Lifton - Jon’s right. Not about this song or Warwick in general, but that Manilow should have had a couple of his ballads in this series. This is OK. Will Jennings goes for some of Bacharach’s melodic flourishes, but doesn’t have the harmonic palette to make it as interesting.
Medsker - It just finally hit me where I know the name Will Jennings. He was Winwood’s lyricist on Back in the High Life, wasn’t he?
Lifton – Yep.
Thierry Côté - Jennings also wrote the lyrics to “My Heart Will Go On” and co-wrote “Up Where We Belong”, “Tears in Heaven” and “Looks Like We Made It”. He’s a very, very wealthy man.
#20: Rex Smith, “You Take My Breath Away” – #10 U.S.
Feerick - I’ve gotta say, Time-Life’s decision to end this series with three piano ballads in a row is kind of baffling. Off we go, not with a bang, but a quiver.
Back in the ‘80s, I watched the movie version of The Pirates of Penzance on VHS about a billion times to prepare for my appearance in a high school production of it, and Rex Smith made a perfectly adequate Gilbert & Sullivan heroic tenor. That may not sound like damning with faint praise, but believe me, it is.
Cummings - Among the first things my wife, Gwen, and I did as a couple was travel to her mom’s house and gather up her possessions to bring to Washington, where I was living. Among those possessions, tucked into her collection of 45s, was a copy of “You Take My Breath Away.” I didn’t immediately hop in the car and leave her behind, so apparently Rex wasn’t a complete deal-breaker … but that’s the best thing I have to say for him, or this single. Is it possible that Rex used that smarmy, lounge-lizard intonation because it was the only way he could keep from flying profoundly off key? Listen to his closing wails during the fade-out (or, better yet, don’t) for evidence.
Quick, everybody — without going to Wikipedia — what do Rex and Dionne have in common?
Feerick - Classically trained?
Medsker - I’m as big of a mellow gold apologist as they come, but this is just bad.
Dunphy - I wonder if Rex Smith works for Time-Life now? Would have to be to get the last, the very last track of the series, right? Of all the songs they could have nailed the lid shut with, it had to be this one-hit little nothing-of-a-nothing?
Lifton - Another of the teen heartthrobs my sisters inflicted upon me. A few years later he would be singing Gilbert & Sullivan on Broadway with Linda Ronstadt, and that would thankfully be the last we’d hear of him.
Are Rex and Dionne from the same town in New Jersey? That’s my answer.